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Minnesota history: Small house with a big story to tell

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It was 1931 when World War I veteran and postal worker Arthur Lee and his wife Edith moved into a little white craftsman house in south Minneapolis, which this month is being enrolled on the National Register of Historic Places.

Little did they know then that the house on the corner lot would become so historically significant – a flashpoint for racial tensions in the city and the center of a mob scene.

To be sure, moving into the home at 46th and Columbus took some courage. The Lees were black and the home was firmly planted in a white neighborhood – and most residents wanted to keep it that way. A committee of neighbors even offered the Lees $5,000 – more than they'd paid for the house – to move out.

But the pressure got far more intense. On successive nights in July 1931, crowds hurling stones and insults swelled around the home – on one night, a mob of 3,000 – demanding that the Lees leave, the Hennepin County Library notes. The Lees refused.

Lee's fellow military veterans and his postal office colleagues, along with police, helped protect the home.

“My grandpa was a guard at the post office and could legally carry a gun,” Robert Arthur Lee Forman, a grandson of Arthur Lee, told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in 2011. “He and his three brothers, who also had guns that were not legal, and a couple of white people from the neighborhood, stood their ground against the angry white protesters.”

The Spokesman-Recorder notes that Arthur Lee in 1931 told a Star Tribune reporter, “Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country. I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home.”

The Lees moved to the historically black Central neighborhood two years later, and as the Star Tribune notes, the clashes at their home largely faded into history.

But then in 2001, research by law Prof. Ann Juergens surfaced on a local NAACP leader who represented the Lees when they were under siege.

That sparked a long effort to preserve the house and the story, the Star Tribune notes. Leaders in the effort included the Field Regina Northrop Neighborhood Group and students of assistant University of Minnesota Prof. Greg Donofrio. His students' research and oral interviews will be unveiled in a university exhibit Aug. 22 called, “A Right to Establish a Home.”

And two Cretin Derham Hall High School students, Molly Hynes and Emily Voigt, won a state History Day competition this year for their exhibit on the Lees, which earned them a trip to the National Museum of American History in Washington.

“In history books we didn’t learn about racism in the North,” Hynes told the Star Tribune. “It just surprised me and shocked me.”

You can see images of the inside and outside of the home on this Minnesota Historical Society page.

The Uptake has video of a 2011 event at the house, when a marker was placed there, noting the home's historical significance. “He [Arthur Lee] was just a fellow who wanted to make a better life for himself and thought living at 46th and Columbus would be a good fit,” event organizer Jim Bush told WCCO.

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