Interview of Theartrsee (T) Williams
Interviewer: 00:01 Mr. Williams, do we have your permission to take your story
and hear it?
Williams: 00:08 Oh yes. Yes.
Interviewer: 00:09 Awesome. So could you just tell us your first and last name, with spelling?
Williams: 00:16 Yeah, my first name is Theartrsee. T-H-E-A-R-T-R-S-E-E. Last
name Williams. W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S. Generally known as T.
Interviewer: 00:31 Awesome. On this map it shows a location of Plymouth and Penn and some surrounding areas. Have you ever lived near,
Plymouth and Penn in this area?
Williams: 00:46 Yeah I live on Washburn and 13th, 3 doors off Plymouth Avenue.
Interviewer: 01:00 Alright Mr. Williams. Thinking back from when you first came to this area to today, what changes have you seen, positive and negative?
Williams: 01:11 Well, there have been a number of physical changes I think one can look at. Both are either way at this street, along Plymouth Avenue. When we first moved here there were a number of stores, merchants, but they were old store fronts. Some of them were perhaps perceived to be thriving and prosperous. Others were barely hanging on. The area was being vacated.
Williams: 01:46 It was a transition from what had been predominantly a Jewish community, one Jewish community, and it was transitioning to a significant number of African Americans were moving in. So those were the changes that started occurring. We moved there in 1967, and our two neighbors on the south side of us were white and elderly. One on the corner moved out into elder care. The neighborhoods to the south of us, couple down, and people started dying in the neighborhood, and it was transitioning and newcomers were coming in. And actually, it became of more of a community the longer we stayed there, because when we first came in we didn’t know anybody and the people who were near us were looking to move on.
Williams: 03:01 To get out of town. And the people who came in were coming to get rooted. Some came in with younger kids. We had two young children at a time, nine months old, four years old and then we look all around and some people started having children that sort of fitted in with our families. Pretty soon there was a family with six kids. That was a little challenging at times. They played differently than ours. My oldest son was someone who liked to make up rules that no one else understood but him, and he expected the other kids next door to play by his rules, but they didn’t even know. But we saw, there were a lot of kids that came into the neighborhood as our family grew. There were children that came along, friends, they used to walk to school. But before all the schools were closing in the neighborhood. They would walk to Willard School, which was about six or seven blocks from our house. You could see the walking brigade each morning. And then the other thing, they do it on the 4th, not the 4th. I’m trying to remember which one of these holidays. Whether it was Labor Day or one of them, where the whole neighborhood came together in the backyard, which really amounted to three backyards, where an alley came through. And the whole neighborhood came.
Williams: 04:59 The children and all. Where you caught up on the neighborhood gossip and a whole lot of other stuff. And this was really the year, this was 1967. The year of the storm of Plymouth Avenue. We were very close to it. Which was very interesting in thinking about I because I recall my wife and I had been invited to a party out in Wayzata. I was the executive director of Phyllis Wheatley at the time, and because of my situation there, I was invited by a group of corporate executives to participate in a study that lead to the creation of an organization called the Urban Coalition. Which few of you around the table, except on this side, have ever heard of.
Williams: 06:09 Interestingly enough about that, I called Star Tribune and I tried to get through to them, and you know you can’t contact anybody in person now when you call them. You get, you know, voicemail and I will get back to you. They don’t get back to you. But I called the editor asking if they were going to do something significant this year, 1968, which is you know, that was the year of two assassinations. A year of street violence. A year of all kinds of thing happening. And I still haven’t heard back from them.
Williams: 06:45 But he thinks that I’m going to let go of it. I’ve already prepared my mind, the letter, the e-mail that I’m going to send to them. But in other words, getting back to the street violence and living nearby it. That was the year, also, two years after, the other organization that grew out of that, was formed called The Way. So we were invited to this party, took our two children, they said bring the children. We were trying to figure out how best to dress. We’d decided to dress up. My wife said we don’t know these people.
Williams: 07:29 What we did know is that they probably, almost all of them would be white. And so we found our way out to Wayzata, and the invite came from the publisher and the editor at that time of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, John Coales, Jr. So we went out, and it turns out that, it’s good we dressed up because everybody, we were greeted at the door, with people dressing formal, full length. We got engaged into discussion because there was one other black couple there besides ourselves. And of course the talk was about what’s happening. The riots and everything, what’s your opinion, and it got to be a little frustrating at times perhaps more so for my wife than for me.
Williams: 08:22 People who knew best, more than we did about what should be happening in our neighborhood. And I can recall, Mary Louis my wife saying that, you I live there, 24/7, and when I go home, I’m still there. When you come in to do your daytime volunteering, and we appreciate that when you do that, but at the end of the day you go home, and it’s far away from there. So you don’t have to experience what I experience. You don’t have to deal with the issues that I deal with. So don’t tell me what’s best for me.
Williams: 09:07 And so that was a very interesting experience, but it also gave an opportunity to tap into a network that was way beyond my reach. My thing has always been if an opportunity comes to you, jump all over it. To see what good can come out of that. And that was precisely what I did, because I was, as an executive director for Wheatley, Tom, and we we’re underfunded, United Way was the 800 pound gorilla in the room at that time, and the general of the board, the top fundraiser for United Way, …was at that party and I said, “I got to be stupid if I didn’t take advantage and talk to him.”
Williams: 10:02 And I did, and coming out of that we got an appropriation increase, because I told him that we were going to appeal what they wanted us, and we did. We succeeded. So that’s probably more than what you were looking for.
Interviewer: 10:16 Yeah can I just ask some follow up? SO to your wife’s comment about 24/7. Can you just, what do you remember from that time?
Williams: 10:26 Well, it was tense. What I remember is some people were irrational about what was going on and there were unrealistic expectations that things would happen overnight. I remember most about my own participation in the response. What happened, Minneapolis took a different route than many other cities did, following their street violence. They came together more than any others, and it was coming together across economic, social and racial divide. And I had mentioned the
because the Urban Coalition. Here’s the thing about the Coalition, it consisted of, because a colleague and I had put it together, and we deliberately designed it so that you could not avoid people who were experiencing the problems.
Williams: 11:47 It had a large board, 60 people to start with, and it had to be 20, 20, 20. People from the corporate business and the money group. I had 20 seats on the board. The public and large nonprofit, and civic, had 20 seats on the board. And people representing poor people, minorities and civil rights’ group, had 20 people on the board. And they, the meetings were open, the board meetings and one of the things that we said, my colleague and I when we were talking to these finalists, is that, “One option you will not have in going into this, is to walk away”, because people are not going to respect you because you come to the table.
Williams: 12:44 Some of them will vilify you and wonder why did it take you so long to get here? And you will be challenged. You will be called all kinds of evil names, and you’re gonna have to take it an work through that, because what we’re looking for is to get something done that gonna have a significant impact. And so what came out of that was some capacity building. Creating some new institutions that were in the community, and over which people had [inaudible 00:13:15].
Williams: 13:15 There would not be a Northpoint, up on, by the city, if it had not been for the street violence. In 1966 was the initial one, but the organizations in North Minneapolis then, what we wanted was a neighborhood clinic. That was a time that everything was centralized. If you wanted to get medical attention and you were poor, depending upon public assistance, you had to go down to the hospital. And the people said, “No, we want it in the neighborhood.”
Williams: 13:56 The federal government was providing more resources through the war on poverty. That was one of those wars that you probably don’t know anything about. It was a war that we really didn’t win, but there were a lot of resources. Many people got involved in their community because of that because one of the conditions was that, in order to receive federal funds, you had to show what they call maximum feasible participation, and a part of a community residence. For the people who were going to be impacted this, had to be at the table. And that was a challenge because the other people who had traditionally been at the table, weren’t used to having other people there, and would not want to respect them as such. And so this Urban Coalition, this group of people at this large table, who had never been at tables together before, had to work through that. And what happened was that there were some spin outs from that, and as I said because, of who was at the table, more pressure was put on Hennepin County, the commissioners and all, to put that senator there.
Williams: 15:13 And the people from the community had agitated for it, and they had to bust it down and they had to fight. It’s been the last I’d say in 1966, it probably wasn’t until around I’d say 2000, that we really knew for sure, that they weren’t going to pull it out. And so there was this constant battle going on to keep it there. So that’s one part of what grew out of that. And we wouldn’t have that big building that’s going up at Penn and Plymouth now. Depends upon how one feels about this stance and all that other stuff. I think it’s great, that it will bring resources into the community, but it’s going to have a giant footprint on it. You’re in the shadows of it.
Williams: 16:11 And so we’ll have to wait and see. But what was happening 50 years ago, that you follow that through that leads to this, and that four constructions struggling, to get started. And then, an organization that was a spin off from the Urban Coalition called MEDA. Metropolitan Economic Development Association. Focused on helping minorities grow up in business. And that, Copeland got access to some resources that we did not have access to. So one can point those cases throughout.
Interviewer: 16:50 That’s incredible. Mr. Williams, one last question for you What part do you feel you can play in creating a more hopeful future?
With the caveat that it’s an uncertain amount of time. What more can you do?
Williams: 17:11 Well you know, I’ve probably done as much as I could do. But I, really tell my story, and hope that others can see something in it. I taught a class at Augsburg College, in 2015. And it was focused on how Minneapolis responded to its urban crisis, and it looked at that. And when things are happening to us in a tie now, we can’t always see the benefit, and that it is of value. It only takes a retrospective look back at it to see whether or not it had an impact. You want to be able to look back and identify some specific outcomes. So that is what I was trying to do with that, this oral history, and I’ve been working on an oral history product for about five years, myself. And I want to be able to say, I can connect the dots to this, so I can connect the dots to Northpoint, I can connect the dots to the poor people, I can connect the dots to Summit, OIC, I can connect the dots to AIM, I can connect the dots to the Legal Rights Center, I can connect the dots to PPL.
Williams: 18:41 And they all go back to what was happening in the ’60’s, in the summer. A group of young people were upset and frustrated, and things weren’t happening the away they did, and somebody may have thrown a rock or a cop overreacted, and things happen and it put the machinery in motion and people elsewhere. The thing that we have to realize is that, when that is happening, don’t look to the people who are right in the middle of it, who may have thrown the first rock. To be thee ones to point the direction. To be the one to talk about what kind of change we can make. They are the identifiers. There’s someone else that needs to be there to take advantage of that identification, and move forward with, and look for the opportunity to take advantage, or what have you.
Williams: 19:36 Final thing I want to say about that is never let a good conflict or outbreak or whatever it is, go wasted. Be wasted. If it has happened, even if it looks like something that shouldn’t have happened, look for the opportunity to benefit from it.
Interviewer: 19:58 That’s good. That’s really good. Thank you so much.
Interviewer: 20:07 Mr. Williams we want to say thank you. Thank you for telling us.
I feel like that was just a tip of the iceberg and you’ve probably
could have gone a lot more, right?
Interviewer: 20:14 We have another group of questions, that’s fine.
T-Williams – Extended Conversation
Youth: 00:01 I do think that the … I think with young people, we’ve pretty much given up on institutions helping anything. It’s corrupt. Looks what’s happening right now.
Williams: 00:17 That’s wrong because you have to …
Youth: 00:20 Okay.
Williams: 00:20 The institution provides stability and we need infrastructure. That’s our infrastructure there. We need to have someplace to put things and someplace to get things done. It’s one thing to be protesting, but there needs to be some form to the protest so that you identify what the challenges are, what the problems are. You can push, and push, and push, and talk about what needs to be done. For example, what just happened recently about what the police behavior and what the paramedics when they were asking them to sedate people that were being arrested, and as a consequence, the chief, he shifted a policy or saying that they are not to do that. Well, they’re out there. Black Lives Matter was a part of that effort and say, ” Well, that’s … We want more to happen.”
Williams: 01:36 We can say what we want, but somebody has to gather that together and put some form around it and say, “This is what it looks like or could look like, so we’re going to deliver it.” Well, that’s not going to be done by the people that are protesting and saying, “These things ought to be done.” That’s going to be done by some organized entity, and that’s where the institutions come in.
Williams: 02:04 I think the most dangerous thing that is happening right now in our national government is that Trump and his people are destroying critical institutions. They’re literally destroying them. The Department of Energy put in charge this one guy, Scott whatever his name. You put the fox in charge of the chicken house, and he’s eating up all of the chickens so you’re not going to have any chickens left by the time he gets out of there, and we need the chickens. If you want to disrupt things in a society, you destroy the institutions or you reshape them in your own image, and that’s what Trump and his people are trying to do.
Williams: 02:51 We don’t want them delivering the services to the people who need the service. We want them to respond to us and I define what it is you are to do. We open them up to the foxes and let them come in and be in charge and eat up everything, so that what happened here in Minneapolis following 1967, is that we had the protest in ’67. Following that, there was always …Following that from 1967 into the ’70s, mid-’70s there was always someone challenging what was happening. The government and the institutions in our society both public and private were never doing enough.
Williams: 03:49 People were saying that we need to do more, the educational institutions. It’s important to have those forces pushing, but they need to be connected with other forces that can understand the push and they’re right there taking advantage of what is being identified there. You have the lobbyists or the others who are taking this to the legislature and saying, “We need this kind of legislation.” You’re pushing on the corporate institutions and saying that we need some reform there in the corporation. One of them that we need you to pay that you are a corporate citizen, that you are able to sell your goods and services. You need the community for those goods and services. You deliver them to the community and you have the respect and be a part of having a stable community in which you can deliver your goods and services.
Williams: 05:03 When I was involved with the Urban Coalition at the time, I had a head of a corporation of here who said that … I remember talking about corporate … being socially responsible, his corporation, and so on, and that his thinking was that what was most important was for corporations to be concerned about being able to deliver a good product first and not to … They came up around making profit money because they’re accused of gouging the people to make a profit. He said that he didn’t believe that you were in business necessarily to make a profit. You were there to deliver a great product or a great service. If you were organized to do either or both of those then the profit part would take care of itself, so focus not so much on how much I can make off of this good or service but focus on how well we can deliver the service or make the goods. If it’s a fantastic service we’re delivering or making a great product
then the rest of it will take care of itself. But you have to have a community.
Youth: 07:07 But they have to get it to the community.
Williams: 07:12 That’s right. You need to have credibility in the community. That I need to believe that you are … If you’re delivering a good or service in the kind of way that does not bring confidence or credibility to the uses of that then it could be the greatest product in the world, but if I don’t believe what you say about it then I’m not going to use it. You’ve got to be able to produce it well and also present it well, and have me believe that it’s going to do all those magnificent things for me. If I don’t believe it’s going to do that I’m not going to even try it. It becomes important for our corporations to understand the environment in which they produce their goods or deliver their services, which means they need to be a part of that. They need to work towards the stability of it. That was what was happening then and we had more of that at that time than we have now because we had fewer … Well, our corporations in this community at that time were still at a point where they were not as global then as they are now, which meant that the leadership often was local. They were families, the members of the Dayton’s, and the Pillsbury’s and the rest of them. They had grown up here and they had been indoctrinated, and so that was … They felt the responsibility of the community.
Williams: 09:08 But you bring a CEO over from Germany or from India or wherever it might be that they are going to be … Their community’s the global [inaudible 00:09:23] there. They’re going to think far less about what’s going on in their place around them than how that fits into the global schooling. That means that the people in those communities, they might see these large corporations with tremendous assets but don’t feel their local presence. At that time, it was a great opportunity to feel that presence then and to connect with and to know who those people were and to be able to communicate with them. You can’t do that now.
Williams: 10:05 I’ve been having a hell of a time to get a telephone call returned from the editor of The Minneapolis Star Tribune. That wouldn’t have been a problem for me in 1967, ’68, ’69 because I knew who the person was. I could pick up the phone and you didn’t have the automated phone system where a recorded voice would answer the phone and you end up anywhere but to the person that you were calling. We lost something from that. I’m not saying, nor do I expect that we go backwards to that, but there has to be some kind of-
Youth: 10:58 Balance.
Williams: 10:59 … middle ground there. Balance.
Youth: 11:01 I agree. Do you think the north side is pretty connected still as far as accessibility to leaders?
Williams: 11:09 No.
Youth: 11:09 Really?
Williams: 11:12 No. The ordinary people, I think, aren’t. That we may have some of our people who are connected, but I don’t know that we’re any better connected. Probably less so because we are probably a little further removed from that process and those who make the decisions. You don’t know the people as well as we once did. From our institutions on the north side, I’m not … Coming back into one, it feels a little weird because it is so different now than it was then. I have to remember that because I call someone up now, I don’t expect them to necessarily know who I am and that would mean anything to them. 40, 50 years ago it did. Ever since I’m feeling a little bit less important than you once did, but that’s life. That’s what happens. You move onto the next phase and things continue to happen. They’re not going to stop because I want them to. I think what happened is that the younger people … Some younger people. I try not to generalize. My wife always gets on me when I start talking like this. Know less about their community and how it’s structured and how to get things done.
Williams: 13:26 And who is responsible for what. Know almost zero about governance and how that works because you don’t get any information, any exposure to it in terms of your education. You know?
Williams: 13:44 You don’t know how the city government works and its relationship to the county, and its relationship to the state, and its relationship to the feds. So that when you need to try to cut through all of that stuff to get to a person that can be of assistance to you, you don’t know where to go. We don’t spend
any significant amount of time in trying to educate the public to that. You know?
Youth: 14:20 Right. Do you know anyone that does do policy education? Like education on what you just said. How do you go from the city to the county, to the county to the state, and the state to the …
Williams: 14:38 There are a couple of projects. The University of Minnesota over at the College of Education and Human Development has a project over there that’s trying to do some of the civic … They call it a civic something. [inaudible 00:15:02] They had one of these Scandinavian names with few, if any, vowels in it. He has a special project where they’ve been doing some of that, but there’s little of it that is at a level that engages ordinary folks or that’s embedded in our educational institutions at the elementary and high school level. You almost have to be majoring in topic of the subject in college to get exposed to it. Then there are a number of …
Williams: 15:52 A couple of organizations that … I’m a part of a group of old people that’s called the Civic Caucus where we sit and reflect and invite other people in to meet with us and talk about how it used to be done and why can’t we get it done like that again? It’s called the Civic Caucus and we put out a report that has gone out to about seven or eight thousand people. To all of the policymakers at various levels in the state and reflecting on policymaking. Then the legislature does not function anymore. They get over there and they fight and argue, and wait until the last days of the session. Then they take and pile everything into one bill.
Williams: 16:48 Which none of them read, and yet, it’s made into law and the only people … A handful of lawyers then earn a living on trying to wade through that and figure it out, but the ordinary citizen doesn’t have the faintest idea as to what’s in there. They just did that … We had, at our last meeting, a person we had that
came to speak to us at the Civic Caucus had a bill that was … It weighed 16 pounds.
Youth: 17:28 Are you serious?
Williams: 17:30 No. 16 pounds.
Youth: 17:31 Of paper?
Williams: 17:33 Of paper. Everything, including the kitchen sink, was in there. That was going to be passed by law and 90-plus percent of the legislatures didn’t have the faintest idea about all the stuff that was in it. Yet it’s going to become law and we don’t know what’s going on.