Zoom Event Revisits Jewish, Black Relations On The Northside

For an hour on Jan. 28, Minneapolis’ old Northside came back to life on a Zoom call.

Theartrice “T” Williams, a longtime civil rights activist and community leader, recalled how few Black people lived in Minneapolis when he moved here from Chicago in 1965 to work at a local settlement house. 

As a result, “my fondest encounters, memories, were very simple,” Williams said. “It’s when I would go downtown to shop at Dayton’s, and would encounter another Black person.”

For Earl Schwartz, a professor emeritus at Hamline University, the best part about being born and raised on the Northside “was the immediate intimacy of the neighborhood,” he said.

“Anything that a little boy like me needed was no further than a bicycle ride away, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, schools, friends…neighbors, where a little boy just walked in and waited for them to offer me a cookie.”

Williams and Schwartz were not on Zoom just to reminisce. They spoke as part of “Northside Stories: Shared History, Shared Promise,” an event co-sponsored by the Northside Achievement Zone and the NCJW Minnesota.

Northside Stories: Shared History, Shared Promise from Robert Droddy on Vimeo.

Noting the rise in anti-Semitism and racism over the past several years that culminated in the Jan. 6 mob attack on the United States Capitol, NAZ president and CEO Sondra Samuels explained why it was important to revisit the history of Black-Jewish relations in Minneapolis.

“We find ourselves yet again fighting for justice in our land and trying to protect the country that we all love so much,” Samuels said. “And part of it is getting real as a…country, but it’s also us getting real around our history, our present…and our shared future with the Jewish community.”

In the first half of the 20th century, the majority of Twin Cities Jews lived on the Northside, a region known for new immigrants. 

During that time, the Northside also became home to much of the Black community, as racist real estate policies excluded African Americans from living in most of Minneapolis. Those same policies affected Jews.

For several decades, Jews and African Americans lived relatively side-by-side. Synagogue buildings were sold to Black churches. Jews worked in the NAACP and helped lead institutions serving the Black community like the Phyllis Wheatley house. Children from both communities went to school together and built lasting friendships.

But as sentiments around real estate shifted, predominantly in the 1950s, Jews were able to buy homes in the white suburbs while the Black community continued to be trapped in North Minneapolis. 

Most Jews left the Northside in what was dubbed an “exodus,” which had its final chapter after civil disturbances in 1966 and 67, protesting Black disenfranchisement, resulted in the burning of Jewish businesses.

TC Jewfolk reported in September that the story of this period was more complicated than many in the Jewish community recognized: Because of racist real estate policies, the Jewish exodus, in part, contributed to the disenfranchisement of the Northside Black community. 

There were “some in the community who felt that when the going got rough, the Jewish community began to move out,” Williams said. “They were getting away from…the Black community.”

It’s important not to deny the different memories of that period, Schwartz said. Rather, to strengthen today’s Black-Jewish partnership, how and why memories vary between the two communities needs to be understood. 

Schwartz recalled an incident when he was a freshman at Lincoln Junior High during the 1967-68 school year. A white teacher hit a Black student, and the student found support at The Way, a Black Power-inspired community center.

There was potential for another civil disturbance on the Northside as tensions between white and Black students and teachers increased. But Jewish priorities at the time largely missed their mark and overlooked the teacher’s abuse, Schwartz said.

“I think my parents were far more troubled by the possibility that school life would be disrupted for me [by a protest] than what had actually occurred,” he said. “Can we be honest about a story like that now? And is that perhaps a point of departure” between the Jewish and Black communities?

For Williams, a larger lesson of Schwartz’s story is about the still-ongoing need to support African Americans on the Northside like The Way did.

The Way served as “a mediating force in the community,” Williams said. “[The Black student] found a place for a softer landing and they helped him there.

“We need to focus more of our attention on institution building…those mediating institutions that work with people, individuals, and families” like the Northside Achievement Zone, he said.

To bring more perspective on reconciling the painful parts of Black-Jewish history, Enzi Tanner, the community safety organizer at Jewish Community Action, was invited to speak at the Zoom event.

It was fitting — Tanner is both Black and Jewish, and has lived on the Northside since 2015, when he came to Minneapolis to participate in Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of Jamar Clark, a Black man, by Minneapolis police.

For Tanner, an important aspect of reconciliation is “teshuva in Judaism, which is a form of forgiveness, but it’s returning to the place of the harm,” he said.

“This conversation is the first step. Because there has been harm…and how do we move forward without acknowledging that harm? Harm can be done without someone intentionally causing pain.

“So how do we move forward?” Tanner said. “Community relationships. You would hear me normally push for systems and for policy change, but in this case, I really think relationships are important.”