W. Gertrude Brown

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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”. 

W. Gertrude Brown

By Anastasia Rousseau | Spring 2021

Willie Gertrude Brown, born on February 20, 1888, was raised in North Carolina and educated at Scotia Seminary, a school founded by the Presbyterian Church to provide newly freed Black girls an education. After graduation, Brown worked as a teacher in the Charlotte public school system for approximately six years. One of her biggest accomplishments began when she founded the first hospital in Charlotte, North Caroline for African Americans. While engaging in work in her community, she also completed a Bachelor’s degree at Columbia University (1).

In 1924, Brown moved to Minneapolis to work in her new position at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, the first community center catering to the needs of African Americans. Brown specifically worked to help alleviate the struggle that came with the harsh reality of housing discrimination. Families struggled to find adequate homes in suburban communities, and when they did, they were often welcomed with harassment and unpleasant neighbors. The Settlement House was a space for black women to become strong activists and combat the challenges they faced being Black in America by offering positions of leadership to women within the Settlement House. Brown also worked to combat police brutality by offering shelter to those unfairly targeted by the police.

Brown’s exemplary work at the Settlement House offered her a position on the Housing Advisory Board, that would direct the Mayor, City Council and City departments on a wide range of issues related to housing. One of the Housing Advisory Board’s most invested projects was the creation of the Sumner Field Housing Project that would convert old run down shacks into beautiful modern homes, a community for African American residents (2). The tenants for this newly developed community needed to meet some basic qualifications such as having an income sufficient to pay their rent and leave enough for the other essential needs of a family. The second family to be accepted as tenants within the Sumner Field Housing Project were Carl Cockrell and his family. The photo to the right shows the Cockrell family signing their lease for their apartment within the community. Tenants who lived in the community who exceeded regulations were given six months to find a new quarter. While a number of families were able to find a new home, others have found it difficult due to racial prejudice, even if they can afford the home (3).

W. Gertrude Brown was able to create a space for Black families to find stability for their living conditions. Not only to find a welcoming home, but also help families evolve into homeowners. This was the first step in many for Minnesota to introduce public and affordable housing programs into the Twin Cities. In 1937, Brown resigned as director of the Phyllis Wheatley House, and unfortunately, died in an automobile accident two years later (4). W. Gertrude Brown’s programs within the Settlement home live on today as a legacy of her devotion to the Black community.

Sources/Further Reading:

  1. https://aaregistry.org/story/w-gertrude-brown-placed-a-premium-on-education/
  2. “Carl Cockrell Family First Accepted for Sumner Field Apts.” St. Paul Recorder. (1938, November 25). https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/PsImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=578670e0-fcaf-4562-a166-28850a1922dd%2Fmnhi0031%2F1DFC6C5D%2F38112501
  3. “Sumner Tenants Protest Eviction Order to Senator.” St. Paul Recorder. (1949, July 15).https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/PsImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=578670e0-fcaf-4562-a166-28850a1922dd%2Fmnhi0031%2F1DFC6C5E%2F4907150
  4. The Phyllis Wheatley House of Minneapolis Opens. African American Registry. (2021, April 23). https://aaregistry.org/story/the-phyllis-wheatley-house-of-minneapolis-opens/.