May 30, 2019
In 1900, Moses and Mary Burkes bought a little piece of land in the Minneapolis neighborhood now known as Fulton. The couple left scant archival records. No letters chronicle their ambition. No diaries reveal their personal challenges or foibles.
But the property records do speak. They tell us that Moses and Mary were thrifty and capable enough to use their modest earnings as janitors to become freeholders. They bought two lots at the corner 49th and Washburn Avenue South, just a couple blocks from Lake Harriet. On that corner they built a seven-room house, they dug a well, they constructed a barn and a chicken coop.
The little homestead was more than a collection of modest structures. It became home to Mary's teenage son Louis. It gave the family a way to achieve some economic independence by allowing them to raise some of their own food. And it provided a way for them to support the community institutions they valued. On at least one "Decoration Day"---what we now know as Memorial Day--they hosted a fundraising dinner for their church.
Moses Burkes came to Minneapolis when he was about 20 years old. He was born in Kentucky around 1866, right after the Civil War, at a moment of heady optimism for African Americans. But by the time Moses was a young man, the shadow of a new racial order had eclipsed the sunny promises of Reconstruction. Whites worked diligently to recreate the conditions of slavery for African Americans. Debt peonage became the rule. Lynchings were commonplace. And the Kentucky legislature wrote Jim Crow rules into law in 1890. It mandated disenfranchisement and legislated racial segregation in schools and public accommodation.
Moses went north. He traveled to Minnesota, where his half sister Ida promised him work in her growing business.
Family beckoned but so did freedom. Minnesota seemed to be on a different trajectory than Kentucky. In those years, the state appeared to be the "promised land," in the words of the historian Bill Green. As Jim Crow descended on the south, a commitment to racial equity seemed to grow in Minnesota. The legislature passed new laws guaranteed voting rights for African Americans and equal access to public accommodations. And then, in 1898, voters from South Minneapolis elected an African American to represent them in the Minnesota state legislation.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, this was a logical place for a family like the Burkes to put down roots. Their new home was on the edge of the developing city where property was relatively affordable. It was just a couple of blocks from Lake Harriet, with all of its attractions. And it was served by streetcars, which allowed Mary and Moses to get to their jobs downtown.
This page from the 1914 atlas of Minneapolis outlines the footprint of the house, barn and chicken coop built by Mary and Moses Burkes at the corner of 49th and Washburn Avenue South. It provides a snapshot of the neighborhood, which was still sparsely settled on the cusp of World War I. Published by the real estate board one year after the Burkes lost their house, the map documents that the Burke homestead remained intact after the family left the city.
Image credit: Atlas of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota Including Parts of St. Louis Park and Golden Valley Township in Hennepin County (Minneapolis Real Estate Board, 1914): Plate 56.
Moses and Mary Burke House, 4952 Washburn Avenue South, 2019.
Photo credit: Penny Petersen.
Three years after the couple bought their property, Mary's mother paid cash for a parcel nearby. She moved her other children and grandchildren to the neighborhood.
The Burkes remained committed to their homestead, even after they lost their house to a fire in 1907. They immediately borrowed the funds to rebuild.
But the ground beneath their reconstructed home began to shift. The "promised land" became hostile territory during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Starting in 1908, white residents around the city began to raise new warnings about race mixing. In 1908, Prospect Park rallied against the Jacksons, an African-American family who built a house on what is now Franklin Avenue Southeast. That same year, denizens of Fifth Avenue South organized to remove what they called "undesirable residents" on their street. As B.J. West explained, "A negro is an undesirable resident of a white neighborhood." Residents of Linden Hills mobilized around this same idea in 1909, when they worked to prevent Reverend William S. Malone from buying a house around the corner from the Burkes. The same people would later target Mary's mother, organizing to drive her out of the neighborhood.
For these civic activists, racial exclusion had become a critical priority. Minnesota laws that promised equal treatment for people of different races remained intact. But an increasing number of white Minneapolitans had embraced new ideas about neighborhoods. In this new paradigm, established black property owners like the Burkes were an affront to community harmony and prosperity.
A 1910 editorial in the Minneapolis Journal tried to reconcile these dueling commitments to equal opportunity and white supremacy. “No one wants to do the negro an injustice,” it declared. But residents will not tolerate African Americans moving into areas where they are unwelcome. It was "dangerous" and would likely lead to violence. The Journal called on the Real Estate Board to address the problem of the city's "considerable negro colony."
This "colony" included the Burkes, who suffered one set back after another after a fire took their first house in 1907. They were forced to borrow more money. Moses became ill. Their marriage fell apart.
They moved out of the city. And in 1913 they lost their south Minneapolis property.
There is no sign that neighbors were sad to see them go.
In 1916, Moses died at St. Barnabas Hospital. He is buried at Lakewood Cemetery, along with other members of his family.
William D. Green, Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); "The Negro in Minneapolis,” Minneapolis Journal, January 10, 1910; "White folks plan a Negro Quarter," Minneapolis Journal, May 20, 1908; Funeral of Moses Burkes,” The Twin City Star, October, 14, 1916; “Personal Pickups, The Appeal, August 3, 1889; The 1880 Federal Census for Fayette County, Kentucky lists Moses as 14, working as a hostler, and living with his family in Goodloetown, Lexington. His parents are George and Maria Burks and siblings are: Ida Burks (later Dorsey) 19, Roberta Burks, 17, George Burks, 6, and James Burks 5 months. George work as a farm hand and Maria “keeps house”; “Vital Statistics–Marriage Licenses,” St. Paul Globe, October 18, 1898; Minneapolis City Directory, 1898, p. 247; Lake Harriet Park Addition, Block 1, Lots 16, and 17, Hennepin Deeds Book 525, page 371, Document No. 310702, recorded June 11, 1900; Mortgages Book 490, page 113, Document No. 310663, recorded June 11, 1900; Minneapolis City Directory, 1890-91, p. 273 Minneapolis City Directory, 1900, page 274; Federal Census for 1900, Hennepin County, E. D. 128; Minneapolis Building Permit No. B125460, November 10, 1916; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 561, page 204, Document No. 384270, recorded April 7, 1904; Minnesota State Census for 1905; Minneapolis City Directory, 1905, page 351; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 574, page 460, Document 414907, recorded July 24, 1905; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 587, page 171, Document No. 430752, recorded March 5, 1906; “For Sale–classified ad),” Minneapolis Journal, June 3 and 10, 1906; “Minneapolis,” The Appeal, May 25, 1907; “TWO FIRES,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 22, 1907; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 583, page 224, Document No. 470945, recorded August 12, 1907; Minneapolis Building Permit No. 72967, August 12, 1907; Minneapolis Plumbing Permit No. D36193, September 17, 1907; Minneapolis Electrical Permit No. F70868; Permit Index Card for 4852 Washburn Ave Avenue South; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 638, page 40, Document No. 455965, recorded October 10, 1907; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 583, page 242, Document No. 476561, recorded October 16, 1907; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 709, page 187, Document No. 593785, recorded April 7, 1911; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 718, page 47, Document No. 593949, recorded April 8, 1911; “Minneapolis,” The Twin City Star, August 31, 1912; Hennepin County Deeds Book 735, page 176, Document No. 693480, recorded November 3, 1913. On December 19, 1913, Vance E Skahen deeds the property to Robert E. Arthurs for $3,000, noting the $1,200 mortgage, Hennepin County Deeds Book 735, page 287, Document No. 400183, recorded December 29, 1913; Hennepin County Mortgages Book 793, page 607, Document No. 701521, recorded January 7, 1914; Minnesota State Death Certificate No. 20744, October 1, 1916; “Funeral of Moses Burkes,” Twin City Star, October 14, 1916.