Sometimes history hides in plain sight.
A wealth of history is hiding at 1301 10th Ave. N., Minneapolis. It is easy for some of the most fascinating history to go unnoticed because, unlike much of what was in the past, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center is living in the now and looking towards the future – educating tomorrow’s history makers. But with a past so rich, the story must be told … or retold, depending on one’s perspective.
Walk inside of the center in North Minneapolis and the history immediately draws you in with walls adorned with large prints of photos from the past … Phyllis Wheatley’s past … Minneapolis’ past.
Imagine Minneapolis in 1924. Now imagine it for Black people. Yes, the Twin Cities was more progressive than say a Selma, Ala., Money, Miss. or any southern city; but that comparison could be analogous to comparing a knife wound to a gunshot. Remember, we’re talking about a time when official Minneapolis city planning maps outlined areas throughout the city as “Negro Slum.”
Phyllis Wheatley was birthed in 1924 in one such designated area. Initially a settlement house at 809 Aldrich Ave. N., Phyliss Wheatley served as a cultural hub for Blacks in Minneapolis. The charged task was to provide educational and social development for Black youth. And while it was Jim Crow in the South, in the north it was simply called “knowing your place.” Never mind status … Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, A. Phillip Randolph and other Blacks relied on “The Wheatley” for safe boarding. While students at the University of Minnesota, history makers Carl Stokes (first Black mayor of a major city – Cleveland) and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins (past executive director NAACP) called The Wheatley home. Later, through its Mary T. Wellcome Childcare Center, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center provided the educational foundation to Sen. Jeff Hayden, NBA star Rashad Vaughn.
Theartrice “T” Williams is happy to recite the center’s history. In many ways he’s a part of the history. As the center’s current executive director, he’s working to make today’s endeavors tomorrow’s successful history.
Williams, who was named executive director this past December, is back for a second stint in the role, having served in such capacity from 1965 to 1972. He said he was inspired to return because of what The Wheatley gave to him.
“My being in Minnesota to this day is because of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center,” said Williams.
Williams said he reluctantly took the executive director’s job in 1965 with plans on moving to the East Coast within a couple of years.
“Then there was a disturbance on Plymouth Avenue in 1966 and the disturbance in ’67 (a major uprising along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis). The thing that really nailed it (his decision to stay in Minneapolis) was what happened on Plymouth Avenue in 1967,” said Williams.
Williams said the uprising forced corporate executives to realize and address the issues afflicting area Blacks. Out of it the Minneapolis Urban Coalition was born, a collection of business, faith, labor, political and nonprofit leaders.
“We see spinoffs of the coalition such as Meda, Summit OIC and the American Indian Movement. Many of the major recruitment efforts of people of color by major corporations came out of the Minneapolis Urban Coalition,” said Williams, who was a founding member as a part of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center. “That’s when General Mills hired its first Black executive vice president. For the first five to seven years of the Minneapolis Urban Coalition we had a significant impact. That in itself is what kept me here in Minnesota. I had become too involved … too invested, so when Phyliss Wheatley asked me to come back I couldn’t say no.”
One of the major initiatives of the center is the Mary T. Wellcome Childcare Center. The program, which services children 16 months to first day of kindergarten, can host up to 54 children maintaining a staff to child ratio of one to seven. Williams said the Wellcome children leave kindergarten ready and outperform other Minneapolis Public School students.
“Research shows much of a person’s development takes place in the first three to four years of life and we’re proud to serve a critical role in that development,” said Williams.
“We are a team … parents, teachers … we all care about our children and their development. It’s truly a partnership,” said Pam Moore, early childhood services director for Phyllis Wheatley.
The center serves as the development program for Williams’ 3-year-old grandson.
“He’s learning and being challenged every day,” said Williams.
To learn more about child enrollment at the Mary T. Wellcome Childcare Center call (612) 374-4342.