1919: Pillsbury Courts Black Customers While Rejecting Black Employees

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Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

1919: Pillsbury Courts Black Customers While Rejecting Black Employees

By: Alex Keller | Summer 2020

At the turn of the twentieth century, Pillsbury Flour was a powerhouse of local production and employment in Minnesota. Wheat was a tremendous national and international commodity, and Pillsbury’s early adoption of modernized milling equipment gave them a competitive edge in the market. Pillsbury was a household name around the country, and, though they suffered setbacks in the early years of the twentieth century, they were still one of the largest employers in the Twin Cities.

In early November of 1919, the Pillsbury Flour Mills Company arranged to give a demonstration of their product’s quality at St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, a local institution active in South Minneapolis to this day. A writeup, which appeared the following Saturday in the Twin City Guardian, gave a mixed review that surely disappointed the flour company: though “the cakes were splendid… “the biscuits were of a [dyspepsia] tablet kind that mother did not make… and were carefully let alone as if many trench grenades.”

 At the time Pillsbury conducted their local demonstration, they had already been a  Minneapolis fixture for half a century, experiencing a series of ups and downs. The company was sold to an English financial syndicate in the late 1800s, and later a bad harvest forced the company into receivership and restructuring in 1907. They would not completely rebound until the early 1920s, and the presentation before those gathered at St. Peter’s A.M.E. Church on November 5th occurred as the Pillsbury was in the process of recapturing its previous profitability and size.

The uncredited author of the newspaper article was not concerned about Pillsbury’s economic comeback – and with good reason, as none of that economic success would reach into the Twin Cities’ Black communities. The author notes that African Americans “do not have a hand in the making, packing, and shipping, but are given a free hand in buying it wherever on sale.”

It is unclear when and how the Pillsbury Company changed its hiring practices over the years. It receives no mention in any of the encyclopedic entries on Pillsbury’s history. The only hints of bad conduct on the company’s part are this brief article in a local newspaper – and another small article seventy years later, when Pillsbury quietly settled a racial discrimination suit for three-and-a-half million dollars. Following the non-disclosure agreement on which the settlement hinged, these stories were buried. Several decades later, we are long overdue to begin uncovering and reckoning with this side of our shared history.

Sources/Further Reading:

Plat book of the city of Saint Paul, Minn. and suburbs / compiled for and under the direction of the St. Paul Real Estate Board. Philadelphia : G.M. Hopkins Co., 1916. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.