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Phyllis Wheatley Community Center: A Beacon of Hope Amidst the Firestorms of the 1960s

Updated: May 28

Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in the 1960's
Phyllis Wheatley Community Center's previous location on Aldrich Ave during the Civil Unrest of the 1960s

The 1960s in Minneapolis, Minnesota, were a period of stark contrasts. The city basked in the glory of the Twin Cities' prosperity, yet its Black community faced the harsh realities of systemic racism and discrimination. While the rest of the city danced to the Motown beat, Black neighborhoods echoed with the cries for justice and the tremors of civil unrest. During this tumultuous era, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center stood, as it always has, as a vital sanctuary, a lighthouse guiding the community through the storm.

Founded in 1921, Phyllis Wheatley House, as it was originally known, served as a safe haven for young Black women seeking refuge from discrimination and lack of opportunity, many of whom were enrolled at the University of Minnesota but lacked the essential requirement of housing. Once opened, the organization’s function in the Northside community expanded nearly instantly, and Phyllis Wheatley House blossomed into a vibrant hub for the entire Black community, offering educational programs, resources, childcare, recreational activities, and a platform for cultural expression.

Families and children gathered together for a community meal.
Phyllis Wheatley often hosted community meals for famlies in North Minneapolis.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Phyllis Wheatley had become a community center and a crucial staging ground for activism. Leaders like Dr. Ossie H. Simmons and Cecil E. Newman Jr. organized voter registration drives, workshops on nonviolent resistance, and rallies protesting police brutality and discriminatory housing practices.

The Center provided a safe space for Black youth, who faced the brunt of societal prejudice. Educational programs offered them a chance to excel, fostering a sense of pride and purpose in a world that often denied them both. After-school activities and sports leagues kept them off the streets and provided much-needed emotional support. Camp Katharine Parsons was a summertime respite and a place to find inspiration and direction for youth whose experiences were limited to the city streets upon which they lived and the poverty with which their families struggled.

But the Center's role transcended mere activism and education. It became a sanctuary, a place where families could find solace amidst the fear and uncertainty of the times. When tensions flared and the streets filled with protests, the Center offered refuge from tear gas and violence. Mothers gathered, sharing stories of hope and fear while their children played in the makeshift nursery, oblivious to the turmoil outside.

The Center's significance extended beyond the walls of its building. It served as a vital communication hub, a place where news circulated, strategies were formed, and a sense of community solidarity was nurtured. In an era when mainstream media often ignored or distorted the Black experience, the Center's internal newsletter provided a platform for Black voices to be heard, amplifying their concerns and celebrating their achievements.

The impact of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center during the tumultuous 1960s is undeniable. It provided a safe haven for a community under siege, nurtured future leaders, and kept the flame of hope burning bright even in the darkest of times. Its legacy lives on today, serving as a testament to the resilience and strength of the Minneapolis Black community and a reminder that even in the midst of turmoil, a community center can become a beacon of hope, guiding its people towards a brighter future.


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