Phyllis Wheatley Community Center

Phyllis Wheatley Community Center opened its doors in 1924 as a settlement house. The center was the first agency in the Twin Cities dedicated to meeting the human service needs of a growing African-American community. Throughout the agency’s history, it has reinvented itself to respond to the changing needs and conditions in the community.  The agency is named in honor of Phillis Wheatley, the 18th century enslaved girl, whose remarkable true story shows that in spite of what is happening on the outside, there is something within that can help you prevail.
In its early years, Phyllis Wheatley was a safe place for young African American women to seek shelter, receive guidance and marketable skill development.  Gradually, the agency became the center of the African American social scene and it evolved into a home-away-from-home for numerous African-American civic leaders, educators, entertainers and students. The Wheatley, as it was affectionately called, was the only place in Minneapolis where non-whites were permitted to lodge during those days.
Today Phyllis Wheatley programs address the needs of children, youth, families and elders by providing tailored education and skill building opportunities to help individuals and families discover their strengths, develop their personal networks of support and take control of their futures.
The second home of Phyllis Wheatley Community Center on Aldrich Avenue North housed its Mary T. Wellcome Child Development Center, a gym, auditorium, and apartments. Built in 1929, the building was later demolished to make way for Interstate 94.
Phyllis Wheatley Community Center was recognized by the Minnesota Historical Society in conjunction with Minnesota’s sesquicentennial celebration and highlighted in the MN150 exhibit from 2008 -2011 as one of “the 150 people, places and things that shaped our state”.

The year was 1924.  W. Gertrude Brown, a Black from Dayton, Ohio who graduated from Columbia University and studied at the University of Chicago, was the first head resident.  She was a personal friend of Jane Addams and she had a wide range of experience in settlement work before coming to Phyllis Wheatley.  In his autobiography, Overcoming, Mr. W. Harry Davis recalled that Miss. Brown built a Center that would train young black people for leadership in the community, for college and professional positions.   He wrote, “Miss Brown helped shape our attitudes about white people in a way that kept us from becoming racist.”

Needing a larger facility in 1928, Mary T. Wellcome, whose sister, Laura Taylor was President of the Wheatley Board, donated $10,000 to the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House.  A capital campaign followed with a goal of $95,000.  Blacks gave $3,972.41 and that sum was matched by Mrs. H.G. Harrison, who had promised to match each dollar given by Blacks with one of her own.   The Wellcome sisters each gave $5,000 and their brothers $500, bringing the Wellcome family total to $25,000 in donations.

Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House was quite literally the center of the north Minneapolis African American community prior to World War II.   The House provided education, recreation, day care, temporary housing and public meeting space.  W. Harry Davis wrote:  “During the 40’s young African American men were encouraged to jump at the chance at good-paying jobs.  Some of the new black hires in defense plants felt as much discomfort as did the white people working alongside them.  They too had racially insular lives.  But that had not been the case with me.  From the time I started Michael Dowling School as a kindergartner, I frequently had been in situations in which my skin color was different than those around me.  Every school I attended had been integrated.  Meanwhile at Phyllis Wheatley, I had experienced the comfort and confidence building that comes from associating with people of my own race. Through Wheatley athletics, I met white kids from other settlement houses around the city.  I learned what it meant to show respect to all people.  I began my career with determination and considerable optimism…”

Phyllis Wheatley Trailblazers:
For many Blacks, Phyllis Wheatley Community Center was a safe port in the midst of a racially segregated city.  In fact, it was the only place where visiting Blacks could stay in Minneapolis because hotels were segregated.  A. Phillip Randolph, while organizing the Pullman Porters, often met at the house.  Other influential individuals who stayed at the settlement house’s transient bedrooms included W.E.B. Dubois, Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, Roland Hayes, Ethel Waters, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Paul Robeson, Richard Harrison and others.

Marian Anderson, the internationally known contralto, stayed at Phyllis Wheatley just weeks before she became the central figure in a notorious bit of discrimination in Washington D.C. where she was denied use of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR)’s performance hall because she was black.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest and arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead.  W. Harry Davis wrote, “Her Easter Sunday open-air concert in 1939 became a triumphant celebration of liberty and justice for all and sealed her place in the nation’s civil-rights history.  The events in Minneapolis in February foreshadowed that episode.  Marian Anderson had been in Minneapolis and had stayed at Phyllis Wheatley.  But this time she tried to reserve a room at the Dyckman Hotel, one of the city’s finest, on Sixth Street between Nicollet and Hennepin.  Her request was denied.  The Women’s Christian Association, to its credit, was the first to register public protest.  It was also most likely the first protest involving Phyllis Wheatley youth.  Davis continued, “some of us had come to know her when she stayed at the Phyllis Wheatley during earlier visits to the city, and we sat in on her rehearsals.   Staff members at Phyllis Wheatley, Leo Bohannon and John Thomas, said, ‘you guys are teenagers now.  You’ve come through the NAACP leadership program.  We’ve taught you about civil rights.’  The next day they were carrying signs in front of the Dyckman Hotel.  It was the first time I had done such a thing, and it felt good.  We walked alongside members if the senior NAACP, as well as white people who supported our cause.  I met the legendary Rabbi Roland Minda and recognized members of the Women’s Christian Association whom I had seen at Phyllis Wheatley…. A few days later we got word that the WCA had negotiated with the Dyckman Hotel and that Marian Anderson would be able to stay.  We were pleased and proud that we had played a role in making that change.”  – W. Harry Davis.

Trailblazers is a special identification that can be attributed to a person who historically and or/now is the first.  Like Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to have her poetry published, the Wheatley Trailblazers are the ones who start the imprint on the fabric.  The fabric is our culture, metaphorically speaking, and this imprint continues and it is woven and carried on by others.   Trailblazers are people who contribute to the human community, to humanity and in many, many areas.  They bring hope and inspiration to others; they are many.

Mr. W. Harry Davis, who passed away in July of 2006, was a Trailblazer.  He was the first African American to Chair the Minneapolis Public School Board and he served 21 years on the school board.  Mr. Davis was the first African American to run for the office of Mayor with major party backing in 1971.  “He overcame poverty and segregation in and campaigned for racial progress and reconciliation”, Former Vice President Walter Mondale said about W Harry Davis. “He’s been one of the voices for civil rights and sanity and decency in the community.”  Harry Davis mentored Richard Green who went on to become the first black superintendent in Minneapolis schools and later headed the New York City Schools.   Davis’ autobiography, Overcoming, devotes a chapter to his growing up at Phyllis Wheatley Center and includes many, many references about the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center and its impact in his life and others.  At Phyllis Wheatley Community Center’s current location, Mr. Davis Chaired the Phyllis Wheatley Board and served as a Board Member of the Minneapolis Public Schools, Theatrice (T) Williams was the Executive Director of the Center at that time.

Trailblazer women who are with us today include Mrs. Marion McElroy, first African American woman to be employed by Northwestern Bell and Ms. Bertha Smith, who walked from north Lyndale Avenue to the University of Minnesota, is the first African American hired as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Other Trailblazers include the first African American couple to receive a loan to open their successful hair business, the first woman hired by the Minneapolis Public Library, and Mr. Earl Miller who was the first African American President of the Postal Workers Union.  Golden Gloves Boxers were made famous at Phyllis Wheatley.  Mr. Larry Brown was a  Golden Gloves Boxer at Phyllis Wheatley who went on to work in East Africa helping emerging governments with tax policy.

Clyde Bellecourt, who worked for Northern States Power, and his brothers were in the Golden Gloves Boxing Program.  Davis wrote: “they had a dream to extend the benefits of the civil rights movement to Native Americans.  They wanted to organize AIM, the American Indian Movement. They needed time away from their jobs to do it. Together we approached Steve Keating at Honeywell and Don McCarthy at NSP and persuaded them to make Clyde and Dennis loaned executives at the Urban Coalition.  They had a variety of jobs, but their main assignment was to create an organization that would advocate for full civil rights for Native Americans.”

Although Phyllis Wheatley’s original buildings were demolished in 1970 when I-94 was built, a range of quality programs in education, early childhood development and family programs continue to strengthen and empower families in the greater Minneapolis area.  Each program reflects the treasured history of the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House.

This is a sampling of the noted individuals who attended Phyllis Wheatley’s Mary T. Wellcome Child Development Center and grew up at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.  Many were or are the first African Americans in their professional fields of endeavor.  Their lives touched and impacted the social, economic, business, educational institutions that benefited our entire community, and their influence is well documented.  The Minnesota Historical Society has a significant collection of artifacts from the Phyllis Wheatley House and South Hill Films has produced a video documentary on this historically important agency entitled The Heart of Bassett Place: W. Gertrude Brown and the Wheatley House .  The video is in DVD format and is available for purchase from the Minnesota Historical Society.

1 Overcoming, the Autobiography of W. Harry Davis, edited by Lori Sturdevant

2 2008 Trailblazer Day Proclamation