On February 23rd, 2016 Ann Johnson, Principal at Bright Water Montessori Elementary School, echoed north from within her administrative office.
Chaun Webster: So, I appreciate you agreeing to meet with me. This interview is for the purposes of a project that I am working on called Echo North. Echo North is a project that is looking at the way in which black residents of North Minneapolis, both current and former residents of North Minneapolis, have imagined their geography over time. I’m tracing that back to the the 1930 census, and so, really just trying to connect with a variety of residents that have a
variety of different connections to North Minneapolis. You and your coming to the shop that one day really sparked my interest especially around what you were talking about with your dad and his owning a shop. You said, did I get it correct, that it was along West Broadway?
Ann Johnson: No his first shop, the original shop was on what is now Plymouth, well from what I remember, because I was quite young but I remember it looking totally different but it was on the corner of Freemont and Plymouth. And it was a store that sold African artifacts, this was in the ‘60s, so dashikis and things like that and books. He had that for a couple of years, from the ‘60s till I think it was maybe the early ‘70s.
Chaun Webster: This was when you were young?
Ann Johnson: Very young.
Chaun Webster: So you grew up over in North Minneapolis?
Ann Johnson: That’s correct. So I was born over in South Minneapolis and when my parents, my mom was a school teacher, and my dad ran the store as well as worked as a pharmaceutical sales person. And so they determined that they were in the middle class and they wanted to buy a home that kind of went with that status and their friends, who were living in South Minneapolis at the time, suggested they buy a house in the Kenwood area. And so they did and they purchased a house, which was actually used in a Mary Tyler Moore show back in the day, the front of it, they didn’t get any money from it, my dad always tells me that “we didn’t get any money for it” but they filmed the front of it. And we lived there for probably three years.
Chaun Webster: In the Kenwood neighborhood?
Ann Johnson: In the Kenwood, parkway, it was right on Kenwood Parkway which the homes now run -
Chaun Webster: Quite up there.
Ann Johnson: There in the millions, my dad said he wished he could have kept it. But they purposely moved because they, we went to Kenwood, my brother and my sister and I, and each of us were the only blacks in our class and so my dad said that I need you all to grow up with people that look like you, so they purchased a home in North Minneapolis. And it was at the time, this was in the ‘70, no, ‘69 1969, and they bought their house on Washburn from a Jewish family, because in that neighborhood on those two blocks it was only Jewish people that lived there, and they all went to the synagogue which was up on Plymouth, at the time, it’s a baptist church now. And so we moved in to that community and I remember that specifically because we went from being the only black in the class to only having black peers in my class at John Hay, which is now torn down, it’s the playground for Lincoln. I remember it so well, because I remember on the first day -
Chaun Webster: John Hay was the -
Ann Johnson: Was the elementary school and Lincoln was the Junior High School and I was in the fourth grade in 1969. And I went in and was, I mean, literally shell shocked cause I saw all these children and they looked like me but I had never been in a class like that. And I remember crying and leaving the classroom and one of the students, his name was Leon, he came out and he, he touched my shoulder and he said “you know it’s going to be ok”, and he became my best friend from that point forward. I’ll never forget him for that, that was one of those memory things.
Chaun Webster: But you went from Kenwood to North Minneapolis, and I’m interested about, especially it being around the ‘60s that your saying that that’s that time period that ya’ll were living there. Did your dad ever express any kind of experiences of hardship having purchased a home in Kenwood? Or living in Kenwood?
Ann Johnson: The only thing that I remember because we actually lived in Kenwood when Martin Luther King died. And I remember going into my mom and dad’s room and not really knowing what was going on but my mom was crying, and I remember saying “what’s going on?” and she said she was scared because my dad was on Plymouth at The Way, which was on Plymouth Avenue and they were protesting. And she was, just feared for his life, you know, and I look back later, many many years later and saw pictures of the actual rioting that took place and saw, you know the, they were throwing you know those what you call -
Chaun Webster: Molotov cocktails?
Ann Johnson: Thank you. Throwing those and I just remember thinking, oh my gosh my dad was actually in that you know and being fearful for him but also proud of the fact that he was a piece of that you know. My parents were both from the South so this was nothing new to him and years later my dad talks about it, now is that how much he hated Minnesota. And because of the things that he had to go through, you know living in Kenwood Parkway with us as kids, they shielded us from it. One incident I remember is we were going to get ice cream in south Minneapolis and, and, you know, what kid doesn’t wanna get ice cream with their parent right? And they did not wanna serve us and my dad was just, I just remember him being so so angry, and you know and just, I’m thinking, “why won’t they give us ice cream?”, not understanding what the reason was behind it and my dad never ever said it was because you’re black. He never would say that to us, he just said, “that’s ok we’ll just go somewhere else” you know. And then from that point on he kept on drilling in my brother and my sister and I, the importance of being the best that you can be because no one can take your education away. And just drilling that in us, and drilling that in us, you know, until we went off to college.
And when my dad...we use to go to Roller Gardens, so this is the business venture that my dad and his partner decided to do. And we would go to Roller Gardens from the time I was 14 -
Chaun Webster: Where was Roller Gardens?
Ann Johnson: St. Louis Park. And we would catch the bus, and we’d have to catch two buses, and we’d have to leave two hours before it started and we wouldn’t get home until two hours after it and my dad would say “why do you go all the way out to Roller Garden?”, and I’d say “that’s the place everyone hangs out.” So he and his partner decided they were going to do a roller skating rink in the community, cuz he wanted us to be in the community, he just felt like it was safer. And so they raised all of this money, it was this huge endeavor that took many years and many people to agree to do it, you know, to get the building, the building was built from ground up. I remember the ground breaking ceremony, and they built this on the corner of Plymouth and Emerson. And it’s now the unemployment agency.
Chaun Webster: Wow.
Ann Johnson: So I remember that, I remember coming home from college and being a part of that, working there -
Chaun Webster: Do you remember when that happened?
Ann Johnson: Yes, I was in college, so that was in seventy - I think it opened in ‘79 cause I remember coming home my first year of college and working there.
Chaun Webster: What was it called?
Ann Johnson: Roller Gardens - no I’m sorry- roller rink, Northgate Roller Rink. And it was the best DJs, the best music, we would have, which is now The Time, but we would have Flight Time come in and play - we always had bands, because there was a place just for bands. And it, at the
beginning, it was, everybody wanted to be there.
But then it started dwindling over a couple years, and I always used to ask my dad, “what do you think happened?”, and he said people were afraid to come to North Minneapolis.
So they went back to Roller Gardens.
And so after awhile, they went bankrupt. Took a second mortgage on our house and everything and I just remember, you know my dad getting very depressed, he became very depressed after that. Because his whole, he felt like what he wanted to give the community was not backed by the people in the community.
Chaun Webster: Where did ya’ll, when ya’ll moved to North Minneapolis, do you remember where you moved to?
Ann Johnson: Washburn. 12th and Washburn, up on the hill. I recently went and visited the house.
Chaun Webster: It’s still there?
Ann Johnson: It’s still there, the people that bought the house, they’ve had two different owners since then, they’ve redone the whole house and I was up at a block party, because I actually moved to 9th and Washburn recently, and always wanted to be back on my block, and they said, “you want to come in and see the house?” And so I took a tour of it and it was, caught memories. Cause we lived there until, they had the house for almost thirty years. And it wasn’t until my mom got sick that they sold the house and moved into a townhouse. But, yup, that was the neighborhood.
Chaun Webster: And so he did a couple of different ventures? So both the shop you mentioned earlier, you said it was like an African items -
Ann Johnson: Yup. He actually did three ventures, because the second one in between that was, he did a leather cleaning company, and it was called Leather New, and so he, because he was a chemist, and so he devised this product and did very well with it actually, which is what helped him to do the Roller Rink. And he had a cleaning company, and he hired people from the community to go out and clean businesses. So he and his partner had that for many years, and a lot of the people who are now, Johnny Hunter who is now a minister and different people in the community worked for him back then.
Chaun Webster: Where did you go to high school?
Ann Johnson: I went to high school at Marshall, in Marshall University, in the U, over by the U. We went there because it was a new open program. And so we were the first blacks in the school, and it was not 7th through 12th grade. So yeah we were there and a lot of people from our community went, we all got on the bus every morning and took the city bus all the way the way over to the U and went to school there.
Chaun Webster: Where would you catch the bus?
Ann Johnson: On Plymouth Avenue. The number 20.
And then we’d go downtown and take the number 6 to southeast, but yeah, and we played actually, we were the best, had the best basketball team. Won state several years in a row. And, yeah, that was fun.
Chaun Webster: You said your dad liked you to hang around North Minneapolis, he was concerned about your safety. Where else would you hang out in North?
Ann Johnson: We used to go to The Capri Theater, cause that was the only theater that played the black movies. So we would walk from my house to Broadway, every Sunday, that was the only night that they played, Saturday and Sunday’s, and we’d watch the movies, so Saturday was Roller Gardens and Sunday was The Capri. And we’d see all the movies, Foxy Brown, and Superfly and The Mac, all those movies you know. And then we’d go to, earlier in the day we’d go to Zion, Zion Baptist Church, because they’d have youth group so we would go there first. But we never ventured off that was our little community we stayed right there and walked everywhere, you know. It was safe. It was nice actually. It was really nice. Which is why I think it’s so hard for me now to see the demise of the community.
Chaun Webster: So ya’ll were at 12th and Washburn and we are here in Bright Water which is at 51st and Freemont.
Ann Johnson: That’s right.
Chaun Webster: Now I always here this talk about how once you get north of Broadway, that for a period of time, you didn’t have folks that had homes or businesses that were north of Broadway. That particularly black folks were not able to purchase homes north of Broadway.
Ann Johnson: Right.
Chaun Webster: Weren’t able to have businesses north of Broadway. Did you ever feel any of that tension?
Ann Johnson: Actually, my husband and I did when we first got married we went to purchase a house and it was up in Folwell Park area. Beautiful houses and they would not sell it to us, they said that we didn’t fit into the community. I remember the realtor telling our realtor who happened to be our friend, and they didn’t know that they were going to tell us, and so we we start feeling that that’s when we actually moved because we left Minneapolis and moved to Georgia, and were gone for over 15 years and we said we didn’t want any parts in that, you know. I was teaching in the community, which is why I wanted to live in the community, you know, I was teaching at Bethune which is right in the - and they was all surrounded by projects when I first started teaching. So we wanted to live somewhere in the North Minneapolis area and they put a halt to that. So we didn’t buy our first house in Minneapolis until years later and we ended up buying in south Minneapolis, where they would sell it to us which is ridiculous but.
Chaun Webster: So then when you taught at Bethune, you said that there were projects -
Ann Johnson: All projects.
Chaun Webster: What does it look like now when you think about what it looked like when you were teaching there?
Ann Johnson: Yeah it’s totally different, I mean we’ve got, and it’s pretty sad actually, because you’ve got this beautiful community but no one that lives in that community with these brand new houses and townhouses, none of them go to the school. I was over there working a couple of years ago and no one in that community, I’d see the kids standing at the bus stop to catch the bus out of the community to go to a different school, and the school was right across the street. I thought what? You know, and that’s a whole other story but the stigma behind Bethune -
And Bethune was an amazing school it actually was the first Montessori school in North Minneapolis was at Bethune which is why I was working there. And what’s crazy is that some of my families, the kids that I taught back then, now are parents here at this school, yeah so it’s like this whole full circle.
Chaun Webster: You’ve been teaching for awhile, how long?
Ann Johnson: I started teaching in ‘82. So thirty four years. Yup, been around a long time.
Chaun Webster: What was it that made you want to be a teacher?
Ann Johnson: My mom was a teacher and she was always so happy I just remember her being so joyful from the kids.
And I had horrible teachers when I was at Kenwood. You know teachers who said I would never learn how to read and teachers that told my parents I was slow, and my mom and dad would say, “no you’re not, you are and just keep on pushing”, and actually with my first grade teacher telling me I would never read I became the best reader in 5th and 6th grade. I won the award every year, I just loved to read. And I think it was that that made me say, I would never ever do that to a kid, and so I love education. I love watching kids learn and so that’s kind of been my passion and now my daughter is a teacher, I have a daughter who’s a teacher.
Chaun Webster: So your mom, where did she teach at?
Ann Johnson: My mom was one of the first black teachers in Minneapolis Public Schools, and she taught at a school called Clinton, which is now where the Honeywell is in south Minneapolis, and she came here in 1957.
Chaun Webster: Wow, from where?
Ann Johnson: Arkansas. And she was a fourth grade teacher, then she became a title one teacher, then title one coordinator, and then before she retired she was human resource director for the Minneapolis Public Schools. So she would recruit African American teachers from the south to come up here and work so the majority of the teachers that are here now, most of them are retiring now, that are from the south, she hired them. And I run into a lot of them now and they say, “oh I know your mom, she hired me”, so that’s kind of a good feeling.
Chaun Webster: Did both your mom and dad migrate from Arkansas?
Ann Johnson: No, my dad was from Nashville, he actually went to Fisk University and was in the army and went over to Pinebluff Arkansas where he met my mom. At a dance.
So yeah, my dad was - they moved up here because he was accepted to the University of Minnesota to become a doctor and so he was in med school when my mom got pregnant and she had to quit teaching and back then if you quit teaching, I mean you can’t have this leave, you had to quit, and my dad couldn’t afford - they couldn’t afford just one salary and so my dad had to stop going to med school. Yup.
Chaun Webster: Did he feel like he was missing something? Did he want to continue in med school?
Ann Johnson: You know, I don’t know we never really talked about it. I always called him my doctor anyway, like I call him, just to in my opinion he’s the best doctor. I mean for every one of my kids, my ailments, I always call him. He knows everything.
I think that he regrets not - I think he regrets having a hardship, he feels a hardship from a lot of the things that have happened to him over the years, you know. Fighting against a lot of systems. Racism is huge I mean he talks about it even now, he’s 84, and even now he’s just - and he gets so angry now, watching tv and the news and something - he’ll go “I just can’t believe this”, and he always tells my brother and my sister, “keep fighting for what you believe in, and don’t ever stop.” He even tells my kids, his grand kids that now too, but um - he’s sad you know, after my mom passed he moved back to the south and he said he would never come back here. It’s like one of those places that - that’s why I have no relatives here. None of my relatives, his relatives, have ever moved here.
Chaun Webster: Did he feel like his treatment here was worse than in the south?
Ann Johnson: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, he said because one thing about the south is, he said it wasn’t - they’ll tell you, I don’t want no parts of you - here it’s this hidden racism. You know this underlying - we’re gonna smile in your face but stab you in the back - type thing. And he felt it and my mom felt it, even with the Minneapolis Public Schools - I felt it over the years, my brother felt it my sister that’s why they’re both moved. And he said there the opportunities are there for you and for example if you step over to a place where you don’t belong, quote, they’ll tell you, get away. And then you just move on to the next place. He says the funny thing is - he says I let the young people fight - and then I’ll go over to that store if they say that you’re not welcome, he said I let the young people fight and then I’ll go in later, you know, he said I’m too old to fight.
Chaun Webster: When you were talking about when MLK was assassinated you said that your dad was down at The Way off Plymouth. Was he involved in The Way, or were you involved in The Way?
Ann Johnson: I was never involved in The Way, but he was always, what I would consider, an activist. You know, he was always down there fighting for the rights - especially with education, and young folks he believed in - The Hospitality House and places like that - and so a lot of that started from conversations that they had at The Way.
Chaun Webster: So there were a lot of meetings that took place there?
Ann Johnson: A lot of meetings. A lot of meetings, yup.
And a lot of things that actually happened, when I think about how years ago we had the McDonalds on Plymouth and we had the grocery store on Plymouth and -
Chaun Webster: You talking about Kings Grocery?
Ann Johnson: Yup. - of meetings and conversations that - my dad was really involved in that and the housing project that was down there - not a housing project but housing development that’s on Plymouth, he was a part of helping that getting past, you know so they could build that out. You know actually that was my first job, I worked down there in the office back when I was in high school. But, yeah, he was a part of making sure that happened. So he was always a part of the community and making the community better. And that’s why if he saw what was going on right now he’d be really sad.
Chaun Webster: How would you describe what’s going on right now?
Ann Johnson: I describe it as - from what I’ve seen over the years is that once people made it from our community back in my day, they moved, they left and they moved out to the suburbs and North Minneapolis just became the place that they grew up but it was no longer a place that they participated in, you know, to make better. And then when that happened - I remember when we started getting the large influx of people form out of state - you know cause back years ago, even when I was teaching I remember people coming from out of state and I’d say “why are you guys moving to Minnesota?”, and they’d say “because you guys have better benefits” you know. And a couple hundred dollars extra per kid is a lot of money, you know, and I think that what ended up happening is we kept getting these - people moving here and not having any resources for them to change their lifestyles or make them wanna be, wanna be a part of a community to make the changes and to keep it a place where everybody wants to live.
And I remember when we had the big tornado - someone - I never forget this and I can’t even remember -
Chaun Webster: You talking about the recent one?
Ann Johnson: Yes, I was teaching at a school over there and it wiped out half of my families houses. And one of these guys said to me that that was the devil saying that - he was mad at North Minneapolis, because of what was going on, because the drugs were heavy in that area right along Broadway right up through there, and it was like - whooooo - wipe it all out. And a lot of people said, gosh if that’s the truth then we’re gonna clean it all up and we’re gonna make it a better place, and that’s what we’re hoping and we’re still waiting for that to happen you know, they’re starting slowly but it’s like, you know, we still don’t have I don’t think we have enough community support from everybody who lives in the community and even those coming back to the community and saying whatever it takes we’re gonna do this together.
You know and that’s what I’ve been telling a lot of my friends is you know, come back, move back and I’ve got a couple that have come back and they’re teaching you know and by, even my own grown kids want to move in the community, and they want this to be a part of the community that they bring up their own kids. I’m just hoping that we can do that.
Chaun Webster: Ok so, maybe I’ll end it with, and I appreciate you do this and taking the time. Maybe, could you name some memorable streets or intersections and what do they make you think about? What are some memorable
Ann Johnson: Broadway, the Y, that was another place that when they built that Y I think I was in my teens, and going swimming and having lock ins at the Y so Broadway, Irving and North Commons, James, and we used to have parties at North Commons, you know, and then the Capri on Broadway and then McDonalds on Plymouth and Penn. Plymouth and Penn was always the place to be and it wasn’t - but it was the place to be in a positive way. So when I think about the most memorable, those were the places, you know, and being able to walk through those communities and not worry about if something was going to happen to you. And it would be night time, you know and we would walk. You can’t get teenagers to walk now. They wanna ride everywhere but we walked everywhere. I think those would be the places, Plymouth, Penn, Broadway.