The Danger of Danger

It’s popular these days to point out how awful Minneapolitans sometimes were and probably still are. Some writers gleefully discover examples of bigotry in our past and present them almost as badges of honor, “See, we’re really not so nice after all and neither were our grandmas and grandpas.” I don’t know who are more smug, those who find no faults or those who find all faults. Same thing really; an inability to distinguish good from bad. Laziness. The root of all prejudice.

No surprise, we’re flawed. We’ve fixed some of our grandparents’ flaws and I dearly hope our children will fix some of ours. Then it will be up to their children … and so on. Let’s just hope that we don’t backslide.

In the midst of today’s discussions of peace and justice, security and danger, I paused when I came across two letters in a file of documents from the Minneapolis Park Board’s Playground and Entertainment Committee in 1947. This was the committee that, in addition to overseeing playground recreation programs and concerts at bandstands in parks around the city, also issued picnic permits to large groups.

In the early 1900s most of the picnic requests came from church groups, but in the years immediately after World War I, the requests tilted heavily in favor of the newly created veterans groups, mostly American Legion posts, which sponsored neighborhood and charitable picnics in every major park. A bond of brothers perhaps.The only requests for picnics that were refused were from groups that planned to have religious or political speeches. The park board didn’t like partisanship in its parks.

Of the dozens of picnic permit requests filed in 1919 and 1920, the park board rejected only two that I could find: one from a labor union and the other from the Republican Party women’s auxiliary because both planned to have political speeches. When the groups adjusted their programs, they got their permits.

Gradually, however, the park board relented on all counts, even allowing church groups to hold baptisms in city lakes. Labor unions, especially, argued, eventually successfully, that political speech couldn’t be prohibited on public land.

Permits were denied later apparently only because groups were using picnics to raise money that wasn’t going to charities or because of space limitations. That was the issue in July 1947 when the park board got this request from the Twin City Nisei Club. Nisei were second generation Japanese-Americans.

Nisei Picnic Request Rev

Letter from the Twin City Nisei Club requesting a picnic permit at Minnehaha Park.

The response, written the same day, came from Karl Raymond, the supervisor of recreation. Note that the date was barely a year after the last of the Japanese internment camps had closed in the western United States. Those prison camps had held more than 100,000 Japanese, many American citizens, born and raised in the United States, due to hysteria – absent any evidence of a threat – that any Japanese person, even if raised thoroughly American, was a security risk following Pearl Harbor.

Recreation Staff 1910

The recreation staff in 1910. One of my heroes of early park history is the man in the suit in the front row, Clifford Booth, the first director of recreation. Karl Raymond, a new hero, is second from right in the second row. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Karl Raymond had worked for the park board for nearly forty years. He was the supervisor of recreation from 1919 to 1947, when he retired.

In his recommendation to the Playground and Entertainment Committee, Raymond noted that as a general policy the park board did not issue group picnic permits at Minnehaha Park for Saturdays or Sundays, “as the grounds are just about filled up with general use.” But Raymond did not use that excuse. He continued,

“Because of the lateness of the season and the make-up of this group, which includes many veterans of both the Pacific and European sector of the late war, I wish to recommend that this request be granted.”

It was.

It’s worth remembering that the wounds of war were still fresh then. The American death toll had not been 50 or 100 brothers and sisters, but four hundred thousand. It was much easier to recognize a wrong many years later. Forty-one years after this insignificant permission to hold a picnic at Minnehaha Park, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that acknowledged our nation’s horrible failing, our unwillingness to accept a minority that was different and often misunderstood.

Ronald_Reagan_signing_Japanese_reparations_bill 1988

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that provided for reparations to Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned during Word War II. The bill was sponsored by Alan Simpson, a Republican Senator and Norman Mineta, a Democrat in the House of Representatives. Mineta later became the only Democrat to serve in George W. Bush’s cabinet. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Perhaps I’m a softy, but when I read Karl Raymond’s recommendation to grant a picnic permit, against general policy, I found myself smiling. Way to go, Karl! A little victory for humanity. We can always use more of those — whether you think we’re mostly bad, mostly good or completely woebegone.

Let’s hope we don’t need to find courageous sponsors and signers of legislation forty years from now to correct mistakes we can avoid today.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

©2016 David C. Smith

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4 comments so far

  1. John Peloquin on

    Great post Dave.

    I think I know what you are talking about. In 1910 70% of the population of MN was foreign born or had one parent that was foreign born … they were not here because this was the worst place on the planet. (Certainly there were excesses against the German pop in WWI; but they seem to have survived and done OK (being part German I have not noticed any lasting impact). I could go on.

    Thanks again.

    JP

  2. Sue Hunter Weir on

    Well done. A great story.


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