The Neighborhood Where George Floyd Died When I Grew Up
The short story, Between Portland and Park, is fictional. Yet, it incorporates dozens of facts about Minneapolis, Minnesota, its racial history, and policing of minorities in a period before George Floyd died with a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. While there is a fictional storyline about a character named Yvette. Reading this will give you an understanding of what it was like growing up Black in any large city in America. The home in the photo isn’t the one I grew up in; it was across the street and down the block but is indistinguishable otherwise from my home at 4220 Oakland Ave. One block between Portland Ave and Park Ave. Enjoy!
It was 1961 in south Minneapolis. Portland Ave and Park Ave were parallel streets separated by Oakland Ave in the middle. Portland and Park are one-way streets, going opposite directions and were the primary thoroughfares heading north and south, respectively. This was before the construction of Interstate 35, which became the preferred route between downtown and the suburbs, which was more commonly known as “the freeway.”
The home I lived in more than any other in my life was an example of municipal planning of the early 1920s when it was constructed. There were 13 houses on each side of the street, most with detached garages in the rear and an alley dividing the block, providing access to the garages and allowing for garbage collection and snowplows. Each block was a rectangle, with the smaller side being referred to as a “short block” and the greater distance as a “long block.” I lived at 4220 Oakland Ave on a relatively quiet street. It was the preferred venue for touch football games year-round, although it required weaving around the infrequent cars parked on the street. Both car owners and players assumed some risk; I’ve witnessed a couple of dents in cars and one broken leg over the years. On my block, there were seven boys and two girls approximately the same age. We played together and argued with each other; there was rarely a fight because the penalty for that was severe.
Most of the families were two-parent households, and several had stay-at-home mom’s although certainly not mine. I cannot ever remember her not working. She was a Licensed Practical Nurse working at a hospital initially. She later worked for the Food and Drug Administration as a technician for much of her career. Adding to her load were her three sons, including myself, who were active, to say the least. Fortunately, her parents lived a short distance away, two blocks down and two blocks over on 40th and 5th Avenue. Once we were old enough, it was not unusual for my brothers and me to race over to Nana and Yaya’s house. Fortunately, none of us got hit crossing busy Portland Avenue as we took risks darting in front of moving cars. My mother never knew about that; the penalty would have been severe as well. I don’t mean to imply abuse at all, but during those times, a spanking was an option in a parent’s arsenal, and I got my share.
I wasn’t born into the home on Oakland Avenue. My recollections are a jumble of what I remember and things I’ve been told that now all seem like memories. My first years were on the Northside of Minneapolis, and again the municipal planning was evident. Not so much regarding the pattern of housing but as to which ethnicity lived where.
North Minneapolis was where black people primarily lived, including the Summer Field housing complex, more commonly known as “the projects,” which was the last place I lived before moving to the Southside. The Northside had avenues laid out in Alphabetical order ranging from Aldrich to Zenith before starting over again. In that first segment of alphabetized avenues, you would find the black people who began thinning out magically once the streets started with A again. At that time, before gentrification, you could hear the name of a street or avenue and accurately describe the populace.
While Minneapolis is known for its Scandinavian population, you could find the Polish segments in the Northeast, Native-Americans on the south side near Franklin Avenue. Although South Minneapolis did have enough to populate predominantly Black, Central High School, most black people were on the Northside. There was no significant Asian or Hispanic population, although that has now changed. Had I remained in North Minneapolis, I would have attended North High School, which was almost all black, the reverse of what it was originally based on old photos. I didn’t know what redlining was when I grew up, but I can identify its handiwork.
The first place I remember living was 1000 DuPont, which was a duplex; we lived upstairs. I was the second son when my younger brother Scott came home from the hospital when I was 2 and a half; I allegedly slapped him. I have no recollection of that. My older brother Kevin was 2 years older than I was; when he was in Kindergarten, my mother was working with him, teaching him to read, and it seems I learned how to read at the same time. I was already tall for my age and now could read, and it was decided I would be allowed to start school early at 4 years old. I was tested by a school psychologist who indicated I could handle the classwork but presciently indicated I might exhibit immaturity versus my peers from time to time.
I started school at Grant Elementary school, and another student in the class was my cousin Wendell, Jr. (Buddy), who I had grown up playing with and was my cohort in whatever one could get into while still 4. It took two weeks before the school decided to separate us into different classrooms as we seemed to be a “distraction to learning.” My mother and her brother Uncle Wendell came to the office to listen to our behavior reports. I certainly do remember that.
We moved at some point from DuPont Avenue to 909 Aldrich in the Sumner Field projects. They were built over a creek bed on the least desirable land in the city; the original inhabitants were blacks and Jews, although, by the time I lived there, many, of the Jews had already taken flight. In the middle of Sumner Field was the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, which provided daycare and numerous community activities. I was unaware of its historical importance.
Because of segregated hotels, it was the only place visiting black people could stay. Mr. A. Phillip Randolph often met there while organizing the Pullman porters, which included my grandfather. Marian Anderson, the opera singer, stayed there a few weeks before her being barred from singing at a venue in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group and invited Ms. Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Marian was the spark for demonstrations in Minneapolis when she was denied accommodations at the plush Dyckman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
Protests were led by the all-white Women’s Christian Association (WCA) joined by the Phyllis Wheatley “Trailblazers,” the Phyllis Wheatley youth, and the local NAACP. The WCA ultimately negotiated for Marian Anderson to stay at the Dyckman, ending her stay at the Phyllis Wheatley Center. I was not conscious at that time of race or poverty, though I can look back at my circumstances and realize the impact of both. When I was just another kid and the Phyllis Wheatley Center was where I spent my afternoons after school until my mother came home.
I have two memories of my biological father. I remember him taking me and my older brother fishing once; I don’t remember if we caught anything, but I remember that it occurred. He also pounded on our door at 1000 DuPont one night, and I later understood he was drunk. My mother didn’t let him in. When I was in college, my mother called to let me know he had died. I knew I was supposed to feel something but couldn’t muster up any emotions in any direction. I wouldn’t have known him if I saw him. I don’t remember ever living in a home with him, and for the early years, it was just my mother and us boys.
The one constant in my years in Minneapolis was Zion Baptist Church. I started there at the original location off Olsen Highway. Headed by Rev. James Holloway, Zion was one of the largest black churches in Minneapolis. The youth, once old enough to leave the nursery, were assigned to Sunday school classes. There was a group of kids I spent time with almost every Sunday for several years of my life. While by now, the Black population had spread out to South Minneapolis and were beginning to infiltrate Edina, St Louis Park, Richfield, Golden Valley, and others. Black churches were mostly located “over North.”
It seemed that most of my Sunday school class lived on the South Side, Linda Warder, Anita Cooper, the twins Howard and Marsha Flippin, and ultimately myself. There was a real sense among the parents that they provided a better environment for their children by moving, although their experiences varied. My grandmother Fern Helm (Nana) was a fixture at Zion; she taught a Sunday school class and was one of the church mothers sitting in a special section during church service. I don’t recall ever seeing my grandfather in church, and I’m sure that must have been the subject of many a conversation between them; my grandmother was anything but a shrinking violet. She was pretty much the matriarch of the family, assuming that role not only for my immediate family but also for my cousin Buddy. Nana’s mother, Inez, was in a nursing home and, due to diabetes, was both blind and mostly bedridden. It was not unusual to visit her after church, although I never had much to say. If I could go back, I would ask her about her life and experiences. An opportunity missed I’ll never have again.
One day at church, my mother introduced my brothers and me to an older man who also attended Zion. I paid little attention until we were told that mom would be marrying “Mr. Gates” that summer and we would be moving to his home in South Minneapolis. My biggest concern was leaving my friends at Grant Elementary, but I was assured I would meet many friends at my new school. I didn’t dislike Mr. Gates, but neither did I especially care for him. If I had any concept of existentialist thought, I might have said something like, “he exists. Therefore he is.” Instead, I said nothing, did what I was told, and respected my elders.
Moving day was a Saturday, and I noticed all the neighbors I met that day were white, which was new to me; while a few adults stopped by to introduce themselves, I hadn’t seen any kids. That proved to have been an erroneous conclusion on my part. Several kids would ultimately be my regular playmates that had yet to appear.
The house itself had more space than I was accustomed to. There were three bedrooms. My mom and Mr. Gates stayed downstairs, Kevin had an upstairs room to himself, and Scott and I shared a room. We had bunk beds but given the opportunities for climbing and jumping. Safety dictated the beds were separated. The “Superman” television show starring George Reeves was popular, and all a child needed to fly was to turn a towel into a cape and jump.
As you climbed the steps and reached the landing, one option was to turn left and go up a few more steps and then go down the hall, which was the traditional entrance to both bedrooms. However, if you turned right, there was an opening to mine and Scott’s bedroom, provided you could navigate the three-foot height difference between the landing and the bedroom floor. Going up to the bedroom, we almost always turned left and used the door but going down, it was always faster to jump from the opening to the landing, and despite the constant warnings not to jump, we did so whenever we thought we could escape detection.
Each upstairs closet had a door in the rear providing access to additional storage in “the attic,” which provided excellent hiding spots, even if somewhat scary when dark. There was also a huge basement that housed the laundry room, a workroom, and a playroom. A small closet containing a water heater and the home had central heat but no air conditioning. Large window fans in the living and dining room sufficed along with smaller fans in the bedrooms. The summer's outside temperature reached 100 degrees from time to time, the humidity was low, and it didn’t feel like I came to learn as Nashville at 90 or Orlando at 85. Conversely, the Minnesota cold was colder than anywhere I’ve ever been; frostbite and wind-chill were part of the lexicon.
Moving to Oakland Ave revealed what my mother had probably never noticed in that her three sons were unaccustomed to playing with each other. At the Sumner Field projects and the Phyllis Wheatley Center, there was always an abundance of kids to play with, and friendships were very age-specific. The two years on each side separating me from each of my brothers was a gap that couldn’t be traversed; we all had our separate groups of friends that rarely mixed. On our first day on Oakland Avenue, we knew no one else when we were released to play outside.
We turned to each other at least momentarily as we attempted unsuccessfully to find common interests. There was a small front yard, a bit larger back yard with a white wooden fence crossing the back. When we went to the alley, we either cut through the garage or slightly less often used the gate on the right side to the chain-link fence. That fence separated us from the house next door that we later learned was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Fisher.
Mr. Fischer was often in his back yard tending their flowers, although I always suspected he might have avoided Mrs. Fischer. She could often be seen in the front of their home sweeping the walk and was always ready to strike up a lengthy conversation from which one had to extract themself or get assistance. I had standing orders from my mother that if we witnessed her in any conversation for more than a few minutes, we would call her to the house for something important. Mrs. Fischer was quite nice, but she had a terrible odor, which in my youth I failed to consider the possible medical implications. Occasionally, I had to actually go in her house while she retrieved something for me to take home, and the smell was such that if I were Mr. Fischer, I would always be outside.
While exploring the back of the house and the alley, I first discovered some of the other kids. A few houses down, three kids played basketball at what turned out to be Lyle’s house; I met Lyle, Mark, and Danny, who were playing “21,” where you got two points for a basket and one for a free throw. I asked if I could play, and they immediately said yes, giving me my first white friends. I had a few white classmates at Grant Elementary, but none that I played outside of school was my then definition of friends. Race was not an issue, and we simply played repeatedly as there was little else to do on a summer day.
After a while, Lyle’s mother came out to check on us, introduced herself to me, and offered us all some Kool-Aid in plastic cups, which we gulped down. She inquired if I was new to the neighborhood, and I politely responded “yes” and told her my address, which I was proud to repeat. We went back to our games afterward until it was dinner time, and all the kids went to their respective homes to eat.
Mark lived on the opposite end of the block, and his house, like Lyle’s, faced Portland. Danny lived almost directly across the alley from me. I was soon to meet some of the black kids on the block, including the McMoore’s. Greg was the oldest and the same age as my brother Kevin, I was a year older than Darryl, and there was a gap between him and their youngest brother Jeffrey. They were a few houses down from me on Oakland Ave. Next to them was a young white girl named Becky who rarely could roam past her front yard. Three doors further down… Yvette, a young black girl my age. She was the first to stir feelings in me I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. I was 5 when I met her and must have been 8 when I started “liking” her, but we have not yet reached that part of the story.
There was a month left of summer and the neighborhood kids bonded as kids do without judgment or even notice of our differences. To them, I was Billy, and I later became Bill in high school. I was known mainly by my last name in college and became William as an adult. As September approached, my parent’s thoughts turned to school clothes in preparation for attending Field Elementary School.
My brothers and I had school clothes and play clothes. School clothes were to be taken off immediately after getting home in hopes that they avoided the holey knees and grass stains that inevitably followed the play of young boys. Field School was about 6 blocks away, and I would be walking after the first couple of days of being dropped off by Mr. Gates. My mother didn’t drive; most places we did go by car it was in Mr. Gates Chevrolet. The exception was Sunday trips to Church when my grandmother picked us up at 9:00 am every Sunday.
My grandmother was a stickler for time, and she promised she would leave us if we weren’t ready at 9:00. I never discovered if that was an idle threat as we were always ready, let me repeat always! We followed the same route to Zion each week, traveling down Park Avenue and usually stopping at the full-service car wash on about 28th and Park. We took a left on 5th St, which ultimately ran into Olsen Highway, where the church was located. That year Nana also taught our Sunday school class, which eliminated any playful behavior. We were tasked to memorize a bible verse each week, and “Jesus Wept” worked exactly one time as we were encouraged to give God our best and not the least possible effort.
After Sunday school, we normally sat in the sanctuary as Rev. Holloway gave the sermon. There was a chart on the wall indicating the status of the “building fund” intended to launch the construction of our new building. I was not privy to church finances, but I remember the building fund sign was up for several years before the new building became a reality. The building fund collection was taken during Sunday school, and the results were announced in the announcements during the service.
Each week a Sunday school class was proclaimed the winner and received the banner for producing the most money. It was then I learned I had a competitive streak. It was crucial to win that banner each week; we often beat even the adult classes. I contributed much of my allowance and a good portion of whatever money I made doing chores. My portion well exceeded a tithe of my paltry income, but I was all about winning, which was perhaps the church's intent in providing a banner? Mrs. Franklin lived alone on the same block as my grandparents and sometimes rode with us to church. She once anonymously gave a $100 contribution through our class, and there was quite the murmur in the church when we won the banner with a tally of $114.72.
First grade was a new experience, and Field Elementary was a totally different type of school. I was going from an 85% black school to one that more closely mirrored the overall city population, which was about 15% black. The enrollment slightly exceeded the building's capacity, and the school had provided portables (trailers) to house the surplus students. Quarterly paper drives were collecting old newspapers and magazines to recycle and provide additional monies for supplies and field trips. There was an active PTA with extensive parental involvement, and we never lacked resources, unlike Grant, where paper and pencils were sometimes in short supply. We had recess every day and the chance to play games with all the students, not just those I was in class with. Lyle and Mark didn’t go to Field and went instead to a Catholic school about which they said little. Danny went there but had his own group of friends, and we rarely played together at school in the same way we did all summer. I met other kids who lived nearby, including Jimmy Bowman, who lived across the street on Oakland, and Vincent, who lived across the alley from Jimmy on Park Ave.
One of the two fights I had in my life was with Jimmy. He was shorter, and although a friend, he could also be a bit of a bully. Once during recess, an argument started over a game, and other kids pushed us up into a fight, which neither wanted. His nose was bloodied in the tumbling on the ground, more likely by accident than anything intentional. I was declared the winner and now left alone because I was now a champion.
As Christmas approached, an event happened which could have to end my brief stay on earth. Without meaning to suggest that girls are not, I can definitively say that boys are curious by nature. There came a time when my parents brought home some Christmas presents early that December, and it became the three boys’ life’s mission to find out where those presents were hidden, what they were, guess who they belonged to, and ultimately play with them all long before Santa brought them down our non-existent chimney.
Because both our parents worked, we were home alone for at least brief periods most days. We had chores we were responsible for, which should have taken up much of that time, but there was always time to get into something, and the mission to discover those presents was a top priority. The detached garage was eliminated early on. Almost everything was clearly visible, and while there was an attic, a quick search utilizing the pull-down ladder eliminated that as a possibility. Because we’d glimpsed the sizes of some of the boxes, many potential locations in our house didn’t have the capacity to hold the items in question. We’d settled on my parent’s bedroom as the only remaining possibility, which we’d pretty much saved for last as that was forbidden.
We eventually gathered up the courage and began the search. It didn’t take long to focus on the closet, and we discovered bags containing yet to be wrapped presents, including the ultimate prize, a remote-controlled Jaguar XKE. The need for batteries did not deter us as we could strip them from unused toys from earlier times, and we played with that car until we thought it no longer safe and then boxed it back up until the next opportunity.
Christmas finally came; the Jaguar went to my older brother, who would never appreciate it as much as I would have. Within hours of being put together, I got a model airplane, which was destroyed by my younger brother who “wanted to see if it could fly. “The story could have ended there, but another item discovered during the search of the closet was a gun.
I did not know there was a gun in the house or for what purpose. Until Christmas passed, it was sufficient to play with the toys and revel in our secret time, but the knowledge of the gun was always there. My brothers and I didn’t discuss it ever, and I have no idea if they harbored the curiosity that I did. It was rare that I found myself home alone, but I was determined to satisfy my curiosity about the gun on one such occasion. I slinked back to the closet. It was still there on an upper shelf behind some other items. It was unloaded, but some bullets of different sizes in a box, and I took one I believed would fit.
I was dying to fire a gun and searched my brain for the best way to do it. I went down to the basement, opening the door to the approximately 3x3 foot closet containing the water heater. It was the only spot in the home with a dirt floor. The plan that shaped my then almost 6-year-old brain was to fire the gun into the dirt, where in my mind it would go straight down. I was certain I could cover up any evidence. I’d made no calculations for the noise, which would likely be heard at least a few houses away as there were windows from the basement to the outside.
I loaded the gun, aimed at the floor, and pulled the trigger… nothing happened. They say God protects fools and little children, and he got two for one that day. The “dirt floor” was packed so hard that there would have been no possibility for the bullet not to ricochet. At best, I could have killed the water heater; at worst me. I thought at the time it may have been the wrong size bullet. Later I wondered if there was a safety that kept me from accomplishing something very foolish—a warning to those that keep guns. Whatever safety measures you employ, a determined child may have the means to overcome them. Others may not be as lucky as I was that day.
The balance of the school year was uneventful. A teacher other than mine missed the last month of the year after having acid thrown in her face by what was presumed to be a disgruntled former suitor. I imagine there was a great talk about this among the adults, but they never discussed it in the students' presence. If there were further details, I never knew them. Soon enough, the last day of school came. The freedom of summer beckoned, and my playtime was used to the fullest.
My summer friends were still Lyle, Mark, and Danny, although Jimmy was now an option across the street. Jimmy and I made makeshift bows and arrows and attempted to shoot squirrels with no success. He had a crabapple tree in his back yard, and I discovered a limit to how many can be digested without getting sick.
My brothers and I were not yet old enough to be left alone all day, and we spent the first couple summers at the home of Mrs. Roberta Ellis, who watched kids, sometimes we went to my Aunt Bessie’s, who was Buddy’s mother. They now lived on the Southside as well. My uncle Wendell was my mother’s brother, and when he was home, he led games and kept us busy. Buddy and I found new trouble to get into and picked up the behavior that got us separated in Kindergarten. We were usually home by 4:00 in any case, which left plenty of time to get in a game or two of something before the inevitable call for dinner.
One Saturday that summer, a parade went down Portland Ave featuring the United States president, John Kennedy. My mother walked us to the corner of 43rd and Portland, where we sat on the curb and waited for the procession. The President rode in a convertible along with his wife and waved to those lined up on each side. I was unaware at the time of the nature of politics and that he had political foes. To me, it was no different than if a King had ridden thru. A picture of my brothers and I waving and cheering the President appeared in the Minneapolis Star & Tribune, which I will never forget.
Besides playing with the usual male suspects, I had rare occasions to talk to Yvette, who never got past her front yard like Becky. She asked if she could play Whiffle ball with us sometimes or soccer or capture the flag, to which the answer would have been yes had she been able to get permission from her parents to join us. I once dared to sit on her front steps and talk to her before long; I was shooed away by her mother. I was assured her father would be unappreciative as well.
That summer, I saw my first dead person. A driver headed along 42nd Street had a heart attack and crashed into a telephone pole between Oakland and Park Avenue. We heard the crash and ran over, arriving before the police came. The ambulance came later, and we overheard he was dead; the paramedics covered him with a sheet and took him away. Dead didn’t seem that much different from sleeping. It was disturbing for a short while, but we eventually went back to our game, which was football on Oakland Avenue that day.
Second Grade was Mrs. Sorensen’s class. One of the highlights was a book report contest where every book read and reported on merited a paper link added to a chain that hung on the wall with every student's name above their chain. I loved to read and not only read many of the books in the school library but also had discovered the Southside Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library on 36th and 4th Avenue. My favorite subjects included a series about a shy talking Stegosaurus in the Arizona desert and biographies about baseball players; Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Warren Spahn, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella more. I won the contest, which also left me with a thirst for reading that never left me.
That thirst almost killed me once. Bedtime always came too early, and I had a habit of finishing what I was reading in one session, so being sent to bed in the middle of a book was unacceptable. If the lights were on in the room, Scott and I shared it was visible from downstairs, but if I took the lampshade off the lamp and kept it under the covers, I could continue reading as if under a tent. Unfortunately, I fell asleep while reading, and the hot bulb now lay on my bed sheet and mattress. Fortunately, I did not get burned. Unfortunately, the bulb burned a hole through the sheet and deep into the mattress. Fortunately, the smell or the smoke or some combination woke Scott, who called my mother, who pulled me out of bed. Unfortunately, the fact I was alive and safe didn’t prevent me from getting a terrible spanking. Fortunately, when you turned the mattress over, you couldn’t see the hole at all, and it only smelled like smoke for another month.
On November 22nd of that year, Scott and I were home sick with chickenpox. My mother stayed home with us, and unless you saw the sores on our skin, you’d never know we were sick. She didn’t especially mind being home as she was experiencing morning sickness, and we learned we were to have a new brother or sister. We played tag in the house, racing up and down the steps. We ate everything in sight and were having much more fun than we would have at school. My mother watched game shows on TV, taking occasional breaks to yell at us to stop running or for jumping or yelling. Around 1:30 pm, she yelled at us to be quiet again, but her tone suggested a seriousness not noted before. She was watching a news bulletin indicating President Kennedy had been shot. She asked us to pray for the President, whose condition was unknown. The headline of the paper the next day was only two words; “President Slain!”
We had a Christmas tradition where the whole family would gather at my grandparent’s home on Christmas Eve for dinner and open about half our presents. The other half lay beneath our Christmas tree at home, which we would open Christmas morning. Certain dishes were constants, including my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese and candied yams. There was always ham and turkey with dressing and some type of dessert, usually peach cobbler. My mother and aunt would always bring a dish like green beans or potato salad, but cooking was not my mother’s spiritual gift, and we ate what she cooked more out of politeness rather than desire. I suspect Nana knew this as well and always suggested a dish where little could go wrong. Uncle Wendell usually grilled some ribs, which were a hit for those not into turkey and ham.
My mother was now three months pregnant, and Mr. Gates, who somehow never became “dad,” was ecstatic! George Gates had no children of his own and, at almost 60 years old, probably never expected to have any. I came to suspect much later that my mother married him to help with her three boys and get us out of the Summer Field projects. She was a young beautiful woman and quite the catch for him.
After we got home from Christmas Eve dinner, another tradition ensued. The children would be sent upstairs to bed, and after a time, mom and Mr. Gates would place our remaining gifts under the tree. Of course, we were not asleep and waiting for the parental units to fall asleep so we could sneak downstairs and see our gifts. The single bathroom in the home was downstairs, with the door just past the entrance to my parent’s bedroom. One by one, we would go downstairs to use the bathroom and try to establish whether our parents were still up? This year we had been unsuccessful in finding and playing with the gifts before Christmas, and there was the realization we would actually be surprised. My last turn to check was close to 3 am, and while passing their bedroom, I noted the door was cracked with the telltale red light from a lit cigarette, causing me to trudge back upstairs grudgingly.
Ultimately, we all fell asleep and didn’t even immediately wake at daybreak, which meant we could open our gifts. My mother eventually called up the steps, and we ran down to discover we each had new bikes that were high on our lists. There were other toys as well, but it was the bikes that begged to be ridden immediately. As punishment for keeping them up half the night, we were forced to eat breakfast and get dressed before being allowed to go outside.
It was still, of course, December in Minnesota, and although the sidewalks were clear of snow, there were banks piled relatively high on both sides, and the sidewalks had several ice patches making it hard to stay upright for the best of us. We eventually gave up for the time being but took advantage of when the car was gone to ride in small circles in the garage.
The remainder of the school year was uneventful. I retained from the book report contest a love of reading, and on Saturdays, I usually found myself making trips to the library to get more books. My friends expanded to include the Mays brothers, who lived close to the school. They were among the best football and baseball players at recess and at gym class. Sports became more and more a part of life, which involved playing them rather than watching. The one exception was watching the Minnesota Twins baseball team on TV. At that time, only three television stations and one of them broadcast most of the Twins games.
That May, my grandfather took us to our first baseball game against the Cleveland Indians. The pitchers were Jim Kaat for the Twins and Sonny Siebert for the Indians. The Twins won behind home runs from Zoillo Versailles and Harmon Killebrew, but I think my fondest memory was of the steamed hot dog I ate, which remains the best I ever had.
When summer came, my mother was 8 months pregnant and took time off work to await the child's birth. We were no longer sent off to Mrs. Ellis’s or Aunt Bessie’s and made to play in the neighborhood, our full-time job. Activities usually centered around Lyle’s house because Lyle had most of the equipment we used. When we played whiffle ball, Lyle had the plastic bat and ball with holes in them, which were integral to the game.
Lyle owned the ball we used for kickball and had a basketball and hoop attached to his garage, although Mark had a hoop and basketball. If it took place in the alley, we were usually playing near Lyle’s house except for capture the flag where the whole block was in play. We ran in and out of all the yards that weren’t fenced without regard to the few that bothered to post “Keep off the grass” signs. The one exception was the McMoore’s yard because we were kind of scared of Mr. McMoore. He was an administrator at Central High School and a football coach and was physically imposing compared to the rest of the dads. He had to tell us exactly once to stay off his grass, and we all paid attention.
Because Lyle had much of the equipment, he literally had the power to take his ball and go home. By now, the block's youth had better defined physical characteristics, and Lyle was perhaps the least athletic of our bunch. He wasn’t fat but was at least a little soft, and while the rest of us played sports seemingly all day, Lyle had to take piano lessons and ran at least a couple of hours a day less than the rest of us. He sometimes got upset about being picked last and having less success in some of the games and occasionally did cause the proceedings to come to a halt when he didn’t want to play anymore. This was offset by the fact that is mother always offered us drinks and snacks.
We could play on his screened front porch from time to time. By this time, we were all collecting Topps Baseball Cards. Accompanying the player cards was a huge pink stick of gum and a card from a deck allowing you to play baseball with the cards dictating each at-bat result. We made up scorecards and played nine-inning games making new line-ups every day and keeping records of each game. At night, I would compile batting averages for my hitters and earned run averages for my pitchers. I believe these activities are responsible for the aptitude I later demonstrated in math. I made it a point to go home every couple of hours to check on my pregnant mother just if something happened and she needed me.
My brother Kevin was usually at home and rarely participated in the athletic games I did. He watched TV, had learned to play chess but did kind of like baseball, and he allowed himself to be recruited from time to time when we needed a player. Scott had his own friends who lived on the block across the street, and from time to time, I was tasked to track him down as he was out of yelling range. By now, football games on Oakland Avenue were an evening staple that rarely involved Lyle, Mark, and Danny, who were replaced by the McMoore’s and newcomer Angelo, who had moved into the neighborhood Becky’s house and Yvette’s.
Angelo was an only child living with his mother. He was part black and part Puerto Rican although I had no idea where Puerto Rico was at the time. They had moved to Minneapolis from New York, and frankly, he was a little tougher and angrier than the rest of us. I never knew until much later about the death of his father, who was a police officer, shot during a bank robbery while in New York. Angelo introduced soccer to our crew, although we didn’t have the space to play initially. Angelo didn’t get along with Lyle, and sometimes we took to not mentioning plans to Angelo lest the game end prematurely should Lyle decide to go home.
Mark turned into a fair athlete and was an early pick in basketball and whiffle ball, although football was not so much. When Lyle had piano practice, we played basketball at Mark’s house. I could have company at my house except when my parents weren’t home. Although my mother was now home waiting to give birth, she didn’t really like the noise, so we pretty much left her alone. On a Saturday in mid-June, Mr. Gates took her to the hospital to give birth to my youngest brother Jeff.
By the time Jeff was two, there were some changes on the block. Danny’s father got transferred to Chicago, and they moved away. Angelo went back to New York to stay with an uncle, and Kevin has started 7th grade. Kevin didn’t go to Bryant Junior High, the junior high in our district but instead went to University High School, grades 7–12. He was in the Chess club and Math club and seemed to have found himself. Miss Archibald was my fifth-grade teacher, she was a bit of a disciplinarian, and her favorite saying to a rambunctious class was, “these are pearls of wisdom, and you shall never hear them again.”
I participated in the spelling bee that year and my mother spent a lot of time helping me study words. We spent a couple of hours almost every evening in the basement studying while eating Old Dutch Potato Chips and drinking 16-ounce glass bottles of Pepsi Cola. This was a special time I got to spend with my mother that my brothers never got. They didn’t seem jealous, but that time meant a lot to me. I finished second in the school-wide spelling competition that year to a sixth-grader. Only one student from each school would advance to the city finals. I still had another year and vowed that I would win the next year.
There were three parks within walking distance of my home, and our athletic pursuits became more wide-ranging and involved much bigger fields than what we were accustomed to in the alley and on Oakland Avenue. I played on T-Ball teams at McRae Park and a peewee football team at Phelps Park. I wasn’t especially good at either, but the discipline of participating on a team proved helpful in the future.
During the summer between fifth and sixth grade, everybody had bikes and was mobile, and we often took our play to a park when the alley or the street just wouldn’t do. Yvette had a bike that she wasn’t allowed to ride except around the block with her parents. I talked to Yvette sparingly during the school year but even less during the summer.
Every evening at 10 pm, a public service announcement said, “It’s 10:00, do you know where your children are?” At 10 pm all our parents did know because we were always home. If the same question had been asked during the day, they probably had no clue. The exception was Lyle’s mother, as she always required Lyle to say where he was going.
Sixth grade was full of new adventures. I volunteered to be a patrol, otherwise known as a crossing guard, and my corner was a block from the school at 46th and Portland. I was required to get to school 20 minutes early and pick up my orange belt with a shoulder strap and flag that I would lower for the kids to cross. There was a stoplight at that intersection, so most of the judgment calls were taken away.
The best part was that Yvette was finally walking to school instead of being dropped off by her parents. She walked past me twice a day, and I prayed the light would turn red, keeping her near me for conversation. Yvette played the clarinet in the band, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she brought her instrument as they had band practice. It seemed life had conspired to keep Yvette and me apart. In 5 years of attending the same school and living on the same block. We never had the same class, never had lunch or recess simultaneously, and she had never walked to school until this year. The opportunities to run into her coming or going were few. At home, she wasn’t allowed to go outside of her yard, and as I found out on a couple of occasions, she wasn’t allowed to have a boy sit on her step with her.
Perhaps it was because I never got a chance to really talk to her that I found her so attractive. In my 10 and a half years of living, I had never had a girlfriend or even kissed a girl. I wasn’t sure what exactly having a girlfriend in the sixth grade would entail. I did know that if I had one, it would be her. Yvette was tall for a sixth-grader, and we were close to the same height. I was tall as well, even though I started school a year early. Each day I found out a little more about Yvette, including 11 with a birthday in June. Her favorite class was American History, and she played the piano in addition to the clarinet. She was finally walking to school because her mother had taken a job outside the home and could no longer drop her off and pick her up from school. She was required to call her mother every day once she made it home.
Sometimes she had books to carry home, and I volunteered to help carry her stuff if she could wait for me to take my patrol gear back to the school first. She pondered it before declining, saying that her mother really expected her to get home from school as quickly as possible. I almost got to walk her home. It was a start.
Things were happening at church as well. The building fund to which I’d been contributing was finally turning into a new church. Construction was finished at the new location at 621 Elwood Ave N, and the congregation was going to walk from the old building to the new one on the third Sunday of October. On the second Sunday, I was to be baptized. At the end of every service, the church's doors were opened, and there was an invitation to join. I’d been listening to that part of the service for years, but only recently had I taken it to heart and decided to join. When Rev. Holloway asked, “Who will come?” I stood up and walked down the center aisle, and joined the others who made that walk with me. There were murmurs and clapping, and I was certain I heard my grandmother’s voice amongst the others. We were led off to a waiting area, prayed over, and told the date of our upcoming baptism.
We were a Baptist church, and we didn’t sprinkle water over someone; we believed in immersion. I was told to bring a pair of jeans and a white shirt along with a change of underwear and socks and a plastic bag. The night before, I practiced holding my breath in my bathtub in what was technically a dry run despite the water.
When baptism Sunday arrived, I was excited. For once, Nana didn’t pick us up for church as my whole family was attending, and Mr. Gates drove. I went to Sunday school as usual, and then the candidates for baptism were led to an anteroom to prepare for the ceremony. There were 6 of us, and I was to be second. An older gentleman went first, I saw Rev. Holloway ask him a few questions, and then he placed his hand over his mouth and nose while pulling him back under the water for a couple of seconds before bringing him back up. He was handed a towel and led away to dry off as I was directed down the steps for my turn.
I was asked if I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and replied in the affirmative. I was asked if I understood my decision and was prepared to serve God, and again, I said yes. He said loudly, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost,” while bending me backward like the man before. I was handed a towel and led to a room where my bag was waiting, and I changed back into the church clothes I was wearing before. After the service, we all went to dinner at my grandmother’s house, and all my favorite dishes were prepared. I wasn’t sure I felt any different after being baptized, but it was nice being the center of attention. The following week I marched along with the rest of the congregation from our old location to our beautiful new building.
A few months later, it was time again for the spelling bee competition at school. My mother and I reviewed words in the basement, continuing our tradition of fortifying ourselves with potato chips and soda. I had lost the previous year by one word, and this time I intended to take no prisoners. When the day came, I was ready and took first place. I’d be attending the city finals in one week, with the winner advancing to the National competition in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure a way to get closer to Yvette. I considered asking her to a movie, but that sounded pretty much like… exactly like a date. I suspected her parents would have a problem with that based on years of experience with them. Valentine’s Day was approaching, and I thought of getting her something special, but when and where would I give it to her?
A band concert was coming up in two weeks, and I thought I could get her away for a few minutes during the intermission. I tested the waters by suggesting that I would be getting her a Valentine this year, which generated a laugh and a smile, giving me even more hope. The concert would be in the gym the Friday before Valentine’s, and I planned to give her my Valentine at her locker because if she took it home, it would generate a conversation neither of us wanted her to have. I would make her my co-conspirator, which would make us closer still in my mind.
Since the third-grade, students were invited to participate in a savings program with Farmers and Mechanics Bank. The program was intended to teach children the value of saving money, and envelopes were collected each week, and most weeks, I contributed a quarter and sometimes fifty cents. I got a quarterly statement, and at last count, I had a balance of $31.50. I was technically the co-owner of the account with my mother though only she could withdraw money. During a break in our spelling review, I asked her if I could have $10 to buy Valentine’s gift for Yvette. I reminded her of the money in my account, but she said it was “untouchable” and for my future. She did, however, offer to contribute $5 towards the Valentine and wished me well.
When Saturday came, I set out early to select Yvette’s gift. I got on my bike and headed to 38th and Nicollet, a large drug store and several specialty shops. I went to the drug store first and found nothing that impressed me. I decided against clothing from the first shop as it was probably too personal and would likely upset Yvette’s parents. It was then I had an epiphany when I realized no gift wouldn’t likely upset her parents, so I should focus on Yvette and go for broke. I went back to the drug store and centered on some jewelry I passed up the first time. I suppose whatever jewelry you can buy for $5 is not likely to be a diamond, but it doesn’t mean Yvette wouldn’t like it. I found a gold looking chain with a stone that would look good against her chocolate complexion. The cost was $3.99 leaving me enough to buy a red licorice silver dollar, which would power me up for the ride home. I still had six days to spare before the concert, and I was now planning on how to possibly turn this gift into the ultimate reward… a kiss!
When I got home, my mother asked if I was successful in finding a gift and opened the box that contained the chain. She acted impressed and reminded me we still had some studying to do before Thursday’s city spelling finals.
On Monday, I let Yvette know I had her Valentine and looked forward to giving it to her on Friday. I told her I would allow her one guess a day, and she seemed very excited. I was beginning to focus on the City Spelling Championships and wondered what it might be like to go to the Capitol for the finals. I was honestly more excited about Yvette, however. I looked forward to seeing her briefly twice a day at my corner and having brief exchanges that became more and more friendly. Thursday and the spelling competition finally arrived. I thought I did well, finishing eighth, but my spelling career had officially ended as there was no more competition after sixth grade. I pivoted to thinking about Friday and what I would say to Yvette when giving her the chain and how to make the transition to a kiss.
The concert would begin at 8 pm so there would be time to go home after school and then return to the concert to bring her gift. Friday morning, I was on my patrol corner at the usual time but saw no sign of Yvette. I wondered if she had gotten a ride but didn’t think any more of it. The school day was normal; I did my patrol thing in the afternoon, returned my belt and flag to the school, and headed home. I normally got home around 4:00 each day, changed into my play clothes, and went back out to see if anyone was outside to play with. Lyle didn’t usually get home until about 5:00, so I went down to Mark’s house to play basketball while there was still a little light left. Mark lived across the alley from Yvette, but I didn't look for her as she was never in her back yard. After we played for a while, I saw the flashing lights of police cars parked on Oakland from between the houses.
Mark and I walked to the end of the alley and around the corner and discovered they were at Yvette’s house. Apparently, Yvette didn’t call her mother like she was supposed to when she got home, so her mother and father left work to come home and found her missing. They called the police, who came out to take a report but indicated they couldn’t do much because she hadn’t been missing long enough yet. Other adults from the neighborhood had started to gather outside. Mr. McMoore and his wife were there trying to calm down Yvette’s mom; Mrs. Fischer had even come down the street. Knowing everything going on in the neighborhood was her thing and relating it to anyone who could stand close enough to hear it.
Suddenly, Yvette’s mom turned to me and asked if I saw her at school today? I indicated I was the patrol on 46th and Portland and that while Yvette passed by there every day, I neither saw her before or after school today. She pulled me over to repeat that to the police officer, and Yvette’s mom suddenly ran into the house and came back out seconds later, holding Yvette’s clarinet. She screamed at the officers that Yvette would never have left her clarinet as she had a practice that day for the concert. The officers seemed apologetic they couldn’t really do anything except take a report and suggested that maybe Yvette just got nervous about the concert and went to visit a friend. One officer passed out a card and suggested that Yvette’s parents call when she showed up or alternately if she hadn’t turned up in 24 hours.
That response was totally unsatisfactory to Yvette’s parents, who were convinced as I was that Yvette wouldn’t have run away. Yvette was truly looking forward to the concert and her solo, not to mention the Valentine she’d be receiving. I noticed my mother walking towards us, and apparently, Mrs. Fischer, who had by now assumed her post in front of her home, had caught my mother and alerted her to the missing girl and my location. My mother was walking as fast as I’d ever seen her; she motioned for me to come to her when she got close enough.
While the police were doing nothing, two plans were being put in effect related to Yvette’s disappearance. Mr. McMoore said he would call the principal at his school, Harry Davis, who would call the Superintendent of Schools. A student was missing, and no action was being taken. Unbeknownst to me, Harry Davis was also a Phyllis Wheatley “Trailblazer” and was involved in the protests to allow Marian Anderson to stay at the Dyckman Hotel. Mr. Davis also placed calls to the Mayor, who he hoped would apply some pressure to the police.
The second plan being put into action involved me. I beat my mother home as I was on my bike, but she wasn’t too far behind me. She took me down to the basement and did something she had never done in all our hours of spelling reviews, which was shut the door. She didn’t forget the Pepsi, but there were no potato chips at this session. She started slowly and said she was going to ask me a few questions. She reassured me that I wasn’t in trouble, but I needed to answer every question truthfully. It was a conversation I’ll never forget!
“Billy, I need to talk to you about Yvette. We’re all worried about her, and I’m worried about you too. Are you sure you didn’t see her on Friday at school or on the way?”
“No, mom, I looked for her but didn’t see her all day.”
“Did you get a chance to give her the necklace you got for her?”
“Nope. I planned to give it to her that night.”
“Do you still have it here?”
“Yes, mom, it’s upstairs in my dresser.”
“Run upstairs and get it and bring it here, please. And would you bring me my purse off the kitchen counter?
“Sure!” I took the stairs two at a time and was back in less than a minute. My mother opened her purse and took out her Salem cigarettes. She tapped the box until a couple protruded, taking one and lighting it before starting. She normally smoked in her bedroom or outdoors. It was the first time I’d ever seen her smoke in the basement room we’d spent so much time in. She asked to see the chain, and I handed it to her. She looked first at it and then at me.
“Have you told anybody you planned to give this to Yvette?”
“No, mom, should I have?”
“No, Billy, I just wanted to know who all knew that you liked Yvette? When you bought the chain, did you say anything about who it was for?”
“No! I just said it was for my Valentine.”
“I’d like to hold onto that chain for a while until we find out what happened to Yvette. If anybody asks, you bought it for me because I’m your Valentine.”
“I don’t understand?”
“I know Billy. We all hope and pray that everything will be fine and that Yvette will be home safe and sound very soon. There’s a chance that she might not be okay, that something happened to her, and people will be looking for someone to blame. I don’t want them to blame you!”
“But I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything!”
“I know that, honey. I’m sure of it. But the police don’t know you like I do, that you wouldn’t hurt a fly. They’ll be looking for someone to blame, and a boy that liked her will be very convenient for them because you leave early for school to get to your patrol post. Other kids walking to school don’t see you like they do the others that leave later. I don’t want to give anyone any reason to think you might have had a reason to be upset with her. Maybe she didn’t like you the same way you liked her. I know that’s not true, but I know you. The police might look at you as someone that might have hurt her. Do you understand?”
“No, mom! Why would the police come after me? I didn’t do anything! Aren’t we supposed to help the police and tell them everything we know?”
“I know, baby!”
My mother took a couple of long drags on her cigarette white, pondering her next action. She suddenly got up and said, “Stay here a minute; I’ll be right back. I need to use the phone.”
In about 10 minutes, she was back and said, “Mr. Gates is going to take you to see your grandmother. Run upstairs and meet him out front at the car.” I heard the car pulling out of the garage and went up the stairs and through the house and front door to meet the car, now pulling onto Oakland Avenue. I got in the passenger seat, and we rode in silence the few blocks to my grandmother’s.
Mr. Gates dropped me off and indicated my grandmother would be bringing me back home. I rang the bell, and my grandmother answered. I asked, “Did I do anything wrong?”
“No, Billy, you haven’t done anything wrong at all. Come in and sit down on the sofa. Get yourself a cookie if you like. Your grandfather went out, so we’re all alone today.”
At my grandmother’s house, there was a cookie jar shaped like a big shoe that for as long as I could remember contained Nestle’s Toll House chocolate chip cookies she baked for her several grandchildren. For the first time in memory, I declined.
“Billy, there’s a side of the world we tried to protect you from. One where life isn’t always fair, and people don’t always do the right thing. From what I hear, Yvette isn’t the type of girl that would run away. Is that right?”
“So, the only other possibility is that someone took her, someone that probably doesn’t mean her well. Yvette is a little black girl; for as long as I can remember, black girls and boys have been disappearing, and the police don’t always care. They may try to call her a runaway. Or pin it on the first suspect they find without a good alibi. It’s not fair; that’s just the way it is! Now they want to solve the case, but if they think you had any special kind of relationship with her, they’ll try to make you a match for the crime.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“We all know you didn’t, Billy, but that isn’t nearly as important as not letting anyone have any reason to think you did. Have the police talked to you at all?
“Outside Yvette’s house, Yvette’s mom had me tell a policeman she hadn’t walked by me to school that day. That’s the truth!”
“I know it is, and you did just the right thing. What is important now is not to talk to anybody, except your mother or me. About the fact, you liked Yvette and were planning to give her a gift. Is that clear?
“Good! That means don’t tell your brothers, your friends, your teachers, nobody except your mother or me. There will come a time when this is all settled when you can talk all about it, but this is our secret. The three of us!”
While my mother had tried to convince me, my grandmother told me what I must do. There was never a thought of disobeying her. Nana fed me and took me back home just before 10:00. I heard the public service announcement on the TV as I passed through the living room. “It’s 10:00. Do you know where your children are?”
Yvette didn’t show up on Saturday, and the police were called again to begin their official investigation. They interviewed the neighbors a couple of doors down on either side and across the street. Some were aware that she walked to school and was usually carrying books and her clarinet on most days. Nobody remembered seeing her the day she disappeared. Her parents were questioned about her friends and relatives. Who she talked to on the phone, and who she ever visited? The list was short as she went almost nowhere unaccompanied by at least one parent and only called her cousins who lived on the Northside. Her cousins indicated they hadn’t heard from her in over a week, and their home was searched for good measure. During the weekend, my mom could be found several times talking to Mrs. Fischer, and our standing orders to interrupt their conversation after 5 minutes had been canceled.
On Monday, I got my patrol gear and went to my corner, only to find a police officer and the Vice-Principal of the school already there. They had a picture of Yvette and asked the children as they passed by if they had seen her on Friday or since? On her normal walk, Yvette would walk down Portland Avenue from 43rd to 46th. There was a staggered line of children taking approximately the same route once they reached Portland from wherever their walk originated. On any given day, as many as twenty or thirty children might normally spot her at least from a distance. As it was still winter, she wore an obvious purple coat, which was easily distinguishable. The answers were all the same, most of the children were used to seeing Yvette, but nobody could recall seeing her on Friday.
I was anxious about the police officer being there with me most of the morning, given what my mother and grandmother had told me, but he spent all his time talking to other children and chatting with the Vice-Principal. When I got to school, Yvette’s disappearance was the talk of the hallways, and a couple of teachers broached the subject in class with one offering a prayer.
We got the paper delivered every day at home, and I usually just read the comics and the sports section to follow the Minnesota Twins and the Vikings. I was looking for some information about Yvette and figured that it was about time for a story to break. On Wednesday, the paper had arrived by the time I got home from school, and I was taken aback by the headline on the Front Page, “Two Girls Missing,” along with the pictures of two sisters, 11 and 13, who had gone missing on Monday evening, they were white.
It had not yet been 24 hours since the first report about their disappearance, but apparently, the search for these girls followed a different set of rules. I found no suggestion that they might have run away, and their disappearance was treated as a kidnapping from Day 1. I turned on the TV, and each of the three available channels had breaking stories about the ongoing search for the girls accompanied by their pictures, which now seemed to be everywhere. There was nothing in the newspaper or on TV about Yvette.
There was daily news coverage on all three TV stations regarding the missing white girls for the next three weeks. We knew their names were Sandra and Diane and saw pictures of their stuffed animals. We knew how much their parents wanted them back because of their plea to whoever took them to let them go. We knew the last time they were seen was on a Monday night when their mother kissed them good night after tucking them into bed. The girls were extremely close, and it was their first year in separate schools as Sandra, the eldest, was now in Junior High School. There were few leads the public was aware of. Once, we were asked to help find a mysterious grey Ford sedan seen in the neighborhood with Illinois plates that turned out to be the visiting relative of a neighbor who had returned to Chicago before the abduction. There was no sign of forcible entry, and the girl’s window remained locked, and the ice on the window was intact, meaning they left thru a door. Their winter coats were missing too, which gave their parents some hope that whoever took them had some concern for their welfare.
While the TV coverage always had pictures of the girls and their home and toys. The newspaper had the most information. There was no attempt to link the missing girls' cases, and Yvette seemed to be treated as a runaway in the one article (not on the front page) that mentioned her disappearance. Searches were organized for Sandra and Diane involving neighbors, the Boy Scouts, and an Explorer Post. A $50,000 reward was offered for their safe return, and local politicians railed about the need to “keep our children safe,” advocating an increase in the law enforcement budget.
In Yvette’s case, the police promised to keep the case open but indicated that there was little they could do without any leads and asked her parents to notify them if they heard anything. The parents on our block of all colors got together at Mr. McMoore’s house, and it may have been the first time that many of these long-time residents had actually had a real conversation with each other. Mark’s parents were there, Lyle’s mother was there along with my own. A couple of neighbors without children were there that lived on either side of Yvette were invited because of their proximity.
They went over what they knew about the day of the disappearance. Yvette’s parents left together to go to work just before 7 am with the husband dropping off his wife before continuing to his job. Yvette was up, dressed, and finishing her breakfast. She would normally leave at 7:15 to walk to school. She always left through the front door turning right and right again at 43rd street walking the short block to Portland Avenue, then turning left and walking three long blocks to 46th where a patrol would help her across the street, and she had one short block to go before reaching the school grounds between 5th and 4th avenue. There were two people present that didn’t live on the block. A lady who lived at the corner of 43rd and Oakland who sat in her window seemingly all day and her nosiness at this meeting was a blessing. She always saw Yvette rounding the corner on her way to school but remembered when the police cars came on the fateful Friday that she hadn’t seen her that morning. She had no view of the alley, but according to her parents, she never went through the alley, and the only time she went back there was while taking out the garbage, which was one of her chores. Garbage pickup was on Monday and Thursday, and there would have been no reason to go back there on a Friday.
The other guest was a young black police officer Jerry Whitaker who was not assigned to the case but volunteered to be a go-between should anything come up. There be a need to get that information to the detective assigned the file. He was there at the behest of Harry Davis and provided at least some assurance that the police hadn’t forgotten the case. Yvette’s mother ended the meeting by saying that she knew in her heart that Yvette would never run away and asked that if anyone knows anything to please speak up. Her appeal was fruitless, however, because no one knew anything to add.
When my mother returned from the meeting, we went down to the basement to discuss everything said there. As we headed for the basement, my older brother Kevin said, “I thought you guys were thru with the spelling reviews?” but he received no answer. My mother did her best to leave out no details, and when she got to the part about Yvette only going in the back to take out the garbage on Mondays and Thursdays, I suddenly felt ill.
Unlike Yvette, who never took the short cut down the alley. I used the alley daily to get to 43rd before heading up to Portland and continuing to school. On that fateful Friday, as I reached the end of the alley, I had to dodge the garbage truck entering from the other side. The garbage truck that shouldn’t have been there! I told my mother, who then went upstairs and got on the phone with my grandmother before returning to me.
Mom had received a card from the policeman at the meeting, and it was decided that she would call him and relate that there was a garbage truck present that day that shouldn’t have been there. She only mentioned that one of her sons had seen it and was prepared to provide more information only should it become necessary. A few days passed, and after hearing nothing, it seemed that information was meaningless after all. That was far from the case, however.
While officially a member of the Minneapolis Police department, Officer Whitaker was as low on the totem pole as could be. He typically walked a beat on Plymouth Avenue on the Northside, and his role was normally that of community service as opposed to solving crimes. It was not what he joined the force to do, but he hoped that he would be given more responsibility in time. He had some advocates outside the department, like Harry Davis, who was doing what he could to help his career. He knew that if he presented the information he had. There was a chance that it would be ignored because of the source.
He researched and found 37 sanitation trucks in service that ran Monday through Friday all over the City. Drivers typically alternated a Monday/Thursday route and a Tuesday/Friday route and a commercial route and special pickups on Wednesdays. They normally left the garage at 6:30 am but were not allowed to begin pickups until 7 am because of noise ordinances. Jerry learned who the normal driver was for the Oakland/Portland alley on Monday/Thursday and what route he worked on Friday. If he was in Oakland between 7 and 7:15 on Friday, he was late for his regular route that day. If the driver were on time, he would be excluded, and then it could have been any of the other vehicles in service. There was the possibility that the unidentified child that was the source of this lead was mistaken.
Officer Whitaker couldn’t be late for his own shift, so he took a personal day and followed up on his own time. He went to the first homes along the Friday route to inquire if anyone could recall if the pickup was on time. He found two homeowners and a business that indicated the driver was about two hours late, one of whom had called to complain. In studying the routes, he learned one more thing, which would be an important factor in being taken seriously.
The protocol was that Officer Whitaker brings this information to his sergeant.
“Sgt. Hummel, do you have a few minutes?”
Sgt. Hummel glanced at his watch and said, “I can spare you five; what can I do for you, Jerry?”
“It’s about the missing black girl from Oakland Avenue. I found out some information that may be helpful.”
“Did you share it with the Detective on the case?”
“Not yet, Sergeant; I thought I should share it with you first. I attended a parent meeting on the block, and I got a lead about a garbage truck that was out of place.”
“Officer Whittaker, and I use that title lightly. Your post is a square mile in North Minneapolis, and there is no reason for you to be attending anything on the southside for which you are neither authorized nor qualified. We have a Homicide Squad. Are you on that squad?”
“We have Detectives who hunt for missing girls. Are you a Detective?”
“Then in the two minutes, we have remaining. Tell me what it is you think is so damn important?”
“On the day she went missing. A garbage truck came through the alley behind her house on a day it wasn’t scheduled. The regular driver on that route was late getting to his first stops that day in another part of town, which two customers reported.”
“Pass that information along to the Detective, and from now on, stay out of investigations that don’t concern you. Furthermore, don’t imagine because we let you wear a badge and a gun that you’re a real police officer. If it weren’t for pressure from the government, you wouldn’t be here, so stay in your lane, Officer. Is that clear?”
“Is there anything else?”
“One more thing! The first stop on the driver’s Tuesday route is the block from which Sandra and Diane Palmer disappeared!”
The Sergeant sprang out of his seat and simply told Officer Whitaker to “stay put” as he ran out of the room. He came back 15 minutes later and told him to pay close attention. “There’s going to be a meeting in a half-hour with the Captain, the homicide detectives working the Sandra and Diane case, their Lieutenant, and possibly someone from the Mayor’s office as they are all over any breaks in the other girl’s case. The official story was that you asked permission from me to attend the parent’s meeting. I also authorized you to follow up on what you had learned. Your future depends on you doing what I say, and right now, I am your best chance ever to make anything of yourself in this department.”
After reviewing the story a few times, they walked over to the conference room and found the detectives, their Lieutenant, and the Captain already waiting. They sat down, and the Sergeant said to Jerry, “Tell them everything you just told me.” Jerry related the details with the focus being on the out of place garbage truck and knew to highlight the fact that the same driver would have been in the rear of the white girls’ home by 7:15 the Tuesday they were found missing. Another officer came into the room with a piece of paper and indicated that the driver was at work all the relevant days they inquired about. He also had learned he had received prior complaints about unexplained lateness even though he always left the garage on time.
One of the detectives indicated that Sandra and Diane’s parents were on the way down as they wanted to verify the timeline of her disappearance and determine if the girls had any responsibility for the garbage. The parents were brought to a separate smaller room where the detectives talked to them. They indicated some possible information and wanted to verify some things regarding the night before their disappearance to see if their new theory fit the evidence. The mother recited how she tucked the girls into bed and kissed them goodnight, and the following morning when they didn’t come to breakfast, they discovered them missing. One detective asked about any chores the girls had around the house. The father indicated they were responsible for keeping their rooms clean. They washed dishes after dinner each night. They were responsible for taking out the garbage on Monday and Thursday nights before the garbage was collected the next day. The same detective asked if they could recall if they took the garbage out on Monday before going to bed. The parents looked at each other and said, we’re sure they did because they would have noticed if the garbage was still there amidst all the commotion of all the strangers and police the next day.
The detective asked if they actually saw them take out the garbage on Monday night and was it possible that they forgot to do it and got up on Tuesday morning to take it out. They ultimately answered that yes, it was possible. The detectives thanked the parents, telling them they’d been accommodating and that they would let them know as soon as they found out anything.
They returned to the larger conference room and began to come up with a plan of action. Jerry was allowed to stay perhaps out of courtesy, but there seemed to be little expectation of his further contribution.
They decided that if the cases were related, Yvette’s abduction was planned, and Sandra and Diane’s was happenstance as they were not normally outside alone on a Tuesday morning. They were concerned about the driver, who they now knew to be Leroy Anderson. His pattern of unexplained lateness suggested the possibility of other victims. Leroy was a white 37-year-old male who the city garbage department had employed for 6 years after transferring from the parks department. He was married with two young girls and lived in an apartment at 2400 Bloomington Avenue. They had plainclothes officers begin a 24-hour stakeout of the apartment and started following Mr. Anderson's route. They were looking for where he might take children after abducting them and where he might dispose of bodies if they were ultimately killed.
They watched at the end of the route as he turned into the city landfill and dumped his load of garbage. Different areas were designated for different weeks, and they were able to identify which areas were utilized by that truck in the week of the disappearance. They brought in several officers that had volunteered and cadaver dogs to search that area but found nothing.
There was little likelihood that he brought any girls home as it would be impossible not to be spotted by other residents and staff as everyone entered through a busy front lobby. Residents gained access to the apartments via a single, slow, and often crowded elevator. They continued the surveillance anyway and began to look for other places along the route that might serve his purpose.
Officer Whitaker had been given a role of sorts and participated in a rotation of officers following Mr. Anderson's route. He noticed an abandoned construction site with high dunes of dirt and sand that might make an excellent burial ground, at least during the winter, where visitors were few. After completing his rotation, he went back to the site, which was fenced in, but there was no lock on the gate, and there were tracks in the snow which clearly came from a large truck, possibly a garbage truck.
Jerry notified his Sergeant and the next day while Mr. Anderson went about his route. A crew of dogs and police officers scoured the construction site in search of clues. After an hour, a shout came about, discovering a body, and shortly after, additional shouts came indicating more. By the time they finished, a total of seven bodies had been located, all fully clothed young girls, one of which was a black girl wearing a purple coat matching the description of Yvette.
The bodies were removed to the city morgue, where they would be carefully gone over. They hoped to determine the cause of death and find evidence linking Mr. Anderson to the murders. While circumstantial evidence was high, there was still no direct evidence linking him to the murders. They didn’t want him to get off to go on later to kill more children. Sandra and Diane were easy to identify because of the cold, little decomposition, and their burial had kept animals away from the bodies. Their parents had become somewhat resigned to their daughter’s fate and stoically thanked the officers for finding them so that they could be properly laid to rest.
It was different at Yvette’s home. The scream that came from Yvette’s mother was piercing while her father openly cried while holding his wife. They had refused to give up hope, and now the reality of their only child’s death was overwhelming. That left four children to be identified. The other four were all black girls ranging from 9–14 years old. Three were already on missing children reports, somewhat tellingly identified as runaways. The fourth was a mystery and only months later did they identify her as a missing child from Milwaukee, the only true runaway!
The medical examiner had identified the cause of death of all seven to be stabbed by a 6-inch blade with a serrated edge. They also found blood and tissue under the oldest girl’s nails suggesting she had struggled with her killer. The detectives wanted to tie the knife to Leroy Anderson because there was a chance the evidence they had wouldn’t prove to be enough. DNA wasn’t nearly the science then as it is now; the best they could hope for with the blood evidence was a Type match. They thought the most likely places he would have the knife would be on his truck, in his locker at the truck garage or apartment.
The same knife appeared to be used in all the killings, so he likely still possessed it. The key would be to find the knife before or immediately after the news broke of the bodies' discovery because he might get rid of the evidence. Before getting the parents to identify the known victims, a search warrant was issued for the truck and offices and lockers where the drivers congregated. No knife was found on the truck but in the cabin; there were what appeared to be threaded from Yvette’s purple coat, which would help their case. Leroy’s locker contained nothing helpful, but they eventually found what they believed to be the murder weapon taped behind a file cabinet. Unfortunately, all the drivers had equal access to. They decided to try to get Leroy to lead them to the knife.
The original knife was taken to be processed, and a replacement was secured and replaced behind the file cabinet. Included in the announcement of the bodies' discovery was information about the murder weapon and a description of the knife. A hidden video camera was placed where it could view the file cabinet area, and surveillance was on Leroy at all times. He was observed reading a newspaper containing the news of the bodies and the knife, and he appeared after that to go about his day.
When he returned to his offices, he went into the break room where the cabinet was located and hung around until the other drivers were gone. He then got up and moved the file cabinet back, removed the knife, and put it in his pocket, all of which was recorded on tape. The detectives had enough for their arrest but decided to arrest him at home in front of his wife. Not out of spite but because of their belief that while a suspect might clam up to the police, he would have to offer some explanation to his wife, which might later be used against him. He didn’t go straight home but stopped by a busy intersection at Chicago Ave and Lake St, where he dumped the knife into a trash can. When he pulled away, officers retrieved it along with the fingerprints on it, making their case better and better.
After Leroy had been home about 10 minutes, the detectives knocked on his door. His wife answered.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, Ma’am, we were with the police, and we’d like to speak to Leroy Anderson.”
She took a step back and yelled, “Leroy!” She turned back to face the officers and noticed one with his hand on his still holstered gun. She said, “What’s this about?”
Just then, Leroy entered the room wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. He saw the four policemen and froze. The lead detective stepped to him and said, “Leroy Anderson! You’re under arrest for seven counts of murder and additional charges. You have the right to remain silent…”
Leroy’s wife Monique shrieked and said, “Leroy!”
His knees buckled slightly, and he dropped his head while the detective finished reading his rights. His wife continued, “Talk to me, Leroy! This isn’t true!”
Just then, his two their two daughters came down the hallway. Looking on in horror as handcuffs were placed on their father. Leroy looked at his wife and mumbled, “I’m sorry, honey. I couldn’t help it.” The policemen dragged out the suddenly limp Anderson leaving the wife to console the sobbing girls. This was the distasteful part of what the detectives felt they had to do, but they were grateful for his statement, which was as much of an admission as they would ever get later.
There were winners and losers in this affair. In the police department, Officer Whitaker got a commendation and soon a promotion. His new job description was more like the line of police work he originally thought he’d be doing, and the extra pay was a help. His sergeant got promoted to Lieutenant. The homicide detectives were given commendations and recognized by the mayor. The mayor got re-elected based in no small part on his claims of being tough on crime.
Harry Davis and the other Phyllis Wheatley Trailblazers convened meetings with the police regarding their apparent policy to classify missing black children as runaways while white children are abducted. This led to some policy changes, which at least for the time being gave black victims similar standing to white ones. Mr. Davis was elected to the school board, which he ultimately chaired. Years later, he was the first black person to win his party’s nomination for mayor, although it would be decades later before a black person would serve as mayor.
Sandra and Diane’s parents established the Sandra and Diane Palmer Foundation aiding girls attending college, which had always been their girls' dream. Leroy Anderson never went to trial as he was ironically stabbed in a holding cell by inmates who thought little of his little girls' treatment. Yvette’s parents moved away because the house bore only grief for them drowning out the good memories.
A few years later, I reflected on my years at Field Elementary. There were certainly some good times. I still chat with Ms. Sorenson, my second-grade teacher who inspired the reading I still do often. Mrs. Archibald, with her “pearls of wisdom,” has retired but had made her mark. Mr. Johnson, my fifth-grade teacher, had tried to be a disciplinarian but didn’t quite have the heart for it. One of his expressions was, “You don’t have to be so feisty about it!”
I no longer think about Yvette every day, although the days I do far outnumbered the days I don’t. My mother returned the chain to me I was planning to give to Yvette. She said maybe I’d find another Valentine to share it with, but I couldn’t picture giving it to anyone else. I still look at it occasionally, somewhat amazed that I ever thought it beautiful. The chain was at best “goldish,” and the stone looked like glass.
That summer was the last one spent with my friends on the block. The next school year meant a new school, new friends, and a new understanding of the meaning of race in America. In the next couple of years, the Black Panthers rose, Malcolm x and Martin Luther King were killed. There were many lessons learned regarding the nature of race in America. We have a caste system rivaling anything found in India, with race at its center.
I eventually had my first girlfriend, experienced that first kiss. I knew not what to expect from either other than having some regret that neither were with Yvette. They say you can’t lose what you never had. I beg to differ. I truly lost my innocence about so much in those early formative years. Then again, what I had wasn’t truly innocent; it was an illusion that was ultimately shattered that life was fair, the law applied to all. People would be judged not by the “color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I had been presented with a vision of America that never existed in reality.
After finishing high school, I went away to college and never lived in that home between Portland and Park. What I experienced there stayed with me forever.