On September 26, 1952, the family of
Woodfin E. Lewis moved from Ames, Iowa to a two-bedroom
bungalow at 2928 Jersey Avenue in St. Louis Park. Lewis was
a graduate of Fisk University, had a Master's degree from
Howard University, and had completed two years toward a PhD
from Iowa State College. A nuclear physicist, he had been
recruited by the
Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Co. to work
at its Research Lab, then located at the site of the former
Hennepin County Poor Farm in Hopkins. He came to the Park to
be close to his new job – as a supervisor, he was required
to be able to get to the Center when needed.
All of this would be impressive but not otherwise noteworthy
except that the Woodfin family happened to be the first
black family to move to St. Louis Park. Before they were
accepted as tenants, their landlady, Mrs. Elaine Embretson
of the Garden Village Apartments, made sure that the
neighbors on either side of the house didn't have any
objections. Lewis himself may have made sure that the
neighbors knew they were planning to move in, with no
Four days after they moved in, however, Mrs. Embretson had a
change of heart and had her attorney draw up eviction
papers. The Star reported her as saying "The St.
Louis Park people called me and objected because they don't
want their children to play with Negro children." She later
stated that "people a mile or so away began to pressure me
and to threaten my father-in-law's business," which was
Embretson’s Hardware in Edina.
The threat of eviction caused immediate outrage in the
community. Support for the family came from the business,
political, and especially the religious community.
Businessman Melvin Cooper vowed to "obtain the aid of
Minnesota DFL leaders in preparing a petition to be
presented to the village council, to enforce the
constitutional rights of these citizens." The St. Louis
Association also joined the protest. Mayor Carroll Hurd was
quoted as saying "If the case is to be decided on the issue
of race and color, then those who favor segregation will
take a licking - and I hope they do."
The Minneapolis Tribune ran an editorial decrying
racism and the treatment of this “decent, well educated,
responsible citizens.” Perhaps the most influential was a
group of young pastors who had been meeting on a monthly
basis to discuss the many issues that confronted them as
their congregations mushroomed with growth in Park’s
population. The group included Bennett Brudevold of
Aldersgate Methodist, Paul Obenhauf of Wooddale Lutheran,
Einar Martinson of Union Congregational, Lester Nelson of
Evangelical Free, Norman Nielsen of Westwood Lutheran, Lloyd
Nordstrom of Park Baptist, and Roger Schmuck of St. George’s
Episcopal churches. Aldersgate pastor Bennett G. Brudevold
described that after discussing the situation, the group
agreed that the opposition was coming from a vocal minority
and signed a joint statement stating that the objections to
the family do not represent "either the majority or a true
mind of the people of St. Louis Park as a whole or even the
people in the immediate neighborhood." The group worked
closely with the Mayor, the Village Council, and appeared
before civic clubs in the area to get their support. Their
efforts helped to shine light on the situation and generate
support for the Lewis family.
Eventually a meeting was held between Lewis, Mrs. Embretson,
and two representatives of the Minneapolis Urban League. An
agreement was reached that allowed the Lewis family to
remain in the house for six months. After that time, they
moved to Portland Ave. in Minneapolis. Mr. Lewis became a
member and served as secretary of the Minneapolis Urban
League as a result of his experience.
There is a tragic coda to this story: in 1959, at the age of
36, Woodfin Lewis passed away from cancer after a yearlong
illness. His research involved radiation, as clearly shown
in photos taken at his job at Honeywell. He kept a Geiger
counter at his home, and his children remember laughing when
their father could make it go wild when he got near it.
Daughter Ellen Lewis is writing about her family's
experiences. She still has the geiger counter.
Also see Race, Creed, and
"Invasion of the Colored People," from the Re-Echo.