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Fri, 10.17.1924

The Phyllis Wheatley House of Minneapolis opens

Phyllis Wheatley House, 1936

On this date in 1924, the Phyllis Wheatley settlement house was founded and began operation in Minneapolis, MN.

At the start of the 20th century, community centers known as “settlement houses” were begun in many urban areas of the United States. Most of them were established in poor neighborhoods with a predominantly immigrant population, and designed to help “Americanize” the communities, but others, like Phyllis Wheatley, were founded to continuously deliver services primarily to African Americans.

“The Wheatley” was a central gathering place for the city’s African American community, playing a historic role in this community during an era of harsh racial segregation and discrimination. Traditionally, activities of the Center focused on youth and family development through programs of recreation, education, and performing arts. Many civil and social leaders called the Wheatley House their second home, and the distinguished list of guests included Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, and W.E.B. Dubois.

The original site was an old frame building once a Hebrew Talmud Torah school and later a sewing shop on the north side of town.

Its first director was W. Gertrude Brown. The settlement house had four departments: education, recreation, music, and dramatics. Noticeably missing were classes in citizenship and English. This set the Phyllis Wheatley house apart from other settlement houses that focused on the “Americanization of foreigners.” A Black woman ran each department and their classes were structured for Black children and adults. Though resistant to the idea of a settlement house in the beginning, African American men and their organizations changed their mind after the house opened. During the 1920s and 1930s, “Phyllis Wheatley,” as it was affectionately called, became the center of the Minneapolis African American community.

Because Blacks were often excluded from other special social service agencies, the Phyllis Wheatley House was called upon to perform a wider range of functions than most settlement houses serving European immigrants. The house was a hotel for out-of-town visitors to Minneapolis because hotels at the time would not accommodate black guests. Artists performing at the University such as Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, and others would stay at Phyllis Wheatley. Students trying to educate themselves in the Minneapolis area also stayed at Wheatley. Many civil rights organizations held meetings and many activists gave speeches at the house as well. W. Gertrude Brown left the Phyllis Wheatley house in 1937. Many of its programs are still in operation today.

The Phyllis Wheatley Community Center
919 Emerson Ave. North
Minneapolis, MN 55411

Minnesota Historical Society
345 W. Kellogg Blvd.
Saint Paul, MN 55102-1906

Hamline University
Mick Caouette, Producer
Humphrey Documentary Project
St. Paul, Minnesota 55104

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