Ballad of the Arthur and Edith Lee House
Like an itty-bitty dollhouse.
Made of pretty, white wood.
Happy green grass in front and back.
Cozy and still it stood.
Some say it came right out the box.
Right off a train from Sears.
It came from heaven Mama sang,
An answer to our prayers.
Papa checked the basement and roof.
The windows, doors, and stairs.
Then he nodded his head and winked,
Mama's eyes bright with tears.
We came in a big friendly truck.
Truck full of old and new.
Beds, chairs, tables, lamps and dishes.
We thought the sky smiled blue.
That night we heard a far rumble.
We thought it came from dreams.
Next morning flung at our doorstep:
"Get out!" "No colored!" Screams.
"Fighting in France, who moved me out the mud?
"I will make this house, my home." Papa said.
All day the sidewalk grumbled
A storm up from the ground
Building a wall of angry fear
White faces all around.
Somebody said, "Think of your kid.
And wife. Let's make a deal."
Hundreds more cash—than Papa paid.
"Our buy-back price, your steal."
All night the neighborhood trembled
Earthquake's defiant fear.
Next day the crowd swelled like a flood.
Not one cop, far and near.
"Colored boy don't want our buy-back?
Where's the government?"
Somebody picked up mud and rocks.
Inside we huddled with friends.
Our first lawyer talked and talked.
Up on our lawn, up three front steps
The loud mob walked and gawked.
"Nobody moves me out. Alive or dead.
Not at war in France. Not home." Papa said.
Who called again law and order?
"No! Burn it down! It's done!"
"Let's make a deal" somebody said.
Lord! Who said, "Here's my gun."?
Round and round, back and forth, the mob
Blazed and sputtered for days.
The world deaf, dumb, and blind because
The press shuttered its gaze.
Then on the 15th of July
The press uncorked that choke.
Home Stoned in Race Row! Mob Mauls Cop!
The gates of hell just broke.
Three Thousand Renew Their Attack!
From miles and miles they came
Like a lynching or a witch-burning
Clogging streets without shame.
Then a prim Amazon of the law
Hammered her gavel down
"My client has nothing to trade,
Barter or sell. It's done."
"I have a right to establish a home." Papa said.
What Papa said, he did. Yes, he did. Yes, he did.
What Papa said, he did.
Reprinted by permission from HOME: an anthology of Minnesota Fiction, Memoir, and Poetry (Flexible Press, 2020).
The Arthur & Edith Lee House at 4600 Columbus Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN was the center of an urban riot in the summer of 1931. The Lee Family stayed in their home until the autumn of 1933. During that time, they slept in the basement, and their daughter Mary was escorted to kindergarten by the police. Their house is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the home of their attorney, Lena Olive Smith, a female pioneer of African American civil rights.
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