In the late 19th century and early 20th century, settlement houses began appearing in Minnesota and around the country.
Usually in immigrant neighborhoods, these houses, led by middle-class reformers, were often places where new arrivals could learn English and other skills and take advantage of services to find their way in a new country.
But Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House was different: It focused on Minneapolis’ African-American community.
A growing population
Phyllis Wheatley got its start when local social workers and philanthropists saw a need for a recreation facility for African-Americans, a growing population in the state.
In 1900, only 4,690 African-Americans lived in Minnesota. By 1920 — in the midst of the Great Migration — the black population had nearly doubled to 8,655 and was growing as African-Americans were attracted to jobs in Minneapolis, particularly with the railroads.
Named for the 18th-century African-American poet, the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House opened its doors on Oct. 17, 1924, in a former Hebrew school in North Minneapolis.
The goal was to “foster a wholesome leisure-time program for men, women and children.”
Because the settlement house offered four departments — recreation, education, music and dramatics — a visitor could take an art class, sing in the glee club, play sports or all of the above.
Orchestra and basketball
The organization’s head was executive director W. Gertrude Brown, an African-American woman from Dayton, Ohio. Brown was a graduate of Columbia University and boasted vast experience in the settlement-house movement.
The Wheatley, as the settlement house became known, quickly became a community center, reporting attendance of 620 people in its first month.
Brown wrote in one of her early reports that a basketball game and an 18-piece orchestra rehearsal could be found going on at the same time at the Wheatley.
Within a few years, the organization needed a new home.
The new building at 809 Aldrich Ave. N. came equipped with a library, gymnasium, nursery, community kitchen, club rooms and more.
Full of life
It was clear the Wheatley was more than just a building.
On the venue’s 25th anniversary, the president of the board wrote, “This is the history of a House: not a pile of brick and stone, woods and metal, but a living, neighborly institution, which pulsates with the ebb and flow of the life of the community.”
Minneapolis residents could not only play sports and participate in clubs, but they also could learn about the African-American community at the Wheatley.
The library offered African-American newspapers and books by black authors and poets. Organizations like the NAACP, Pullman Porters, the American Legion and various church societies regularly held meetings there.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, community meetings at the Wheatley attracted up to 500 people.
The Wheatley also worked to battle segregation and Jim Crow policies that persisted in Minneapolis.
When the organization first started, black University of Minnesota students weren’t allowed to live on campus, so the settlement house offered rooms.
During that same time, local hotels refused to admit traveling black celebrities such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes, so the Wheatley hosted them.
Razed along with Rondo
The settlement house also dealt with racial tensions within. White philanthropists had funded much of the start of the organization, and early directors of the board were all white women, who dictated policy and programs to the executive director.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that the executive director gained more control and the board’s makeup became more diverse.
In the late 1960s, the Wheatley house on Aldrich Avenue was razed to make way for the construction of Interstate 94, which also infamously carved its way through St. Paul’s African-American Rondo neighborhood.
Despite this setback, 92 years after its opening, the Wheatley — now called the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center — is still going strong today in North Minneapolis at 1310 N. 10th Ave.
Today the organization continues to serve as a community space and also is a nonprofit focused on lifelong learning, family support and child development.
Its Mary. T. Wellcome Child Development Center, which first opened in 1929, is the oldest continuously operating child development center in the state. Learn more at phylliswheatley.org.
Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.