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Tuesday October 17th 2017

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First Minneapolis Library start-up money donor, Dr. Kirby Spencer, trusted and cared for by Armstrong English

By Sue Hunter Weir

Dr. Kirby Spencer, one of Minneapolis’ first dentists, is generally credited with providing the money to start Minneapolis’ Athenaeum* which functioned as the city’s first public library. Eventually the Athenaeum evolved into the Minneapolis Public Library and more recently into the Hennepin County Library. His was one of the early burials in Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery and even though he was later disinterred and reburied at Lakewood, he remains one of the cemetery’s most written about residents. Another man, Armstrong English, who most likely has never been written about, took care of Spencer in the weeks and months before he died. English and two of his infant sons, both infants, are still buried in Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.

Spencer, a private and very eccentric man, fell ill in the early months of 1870. As his health began to fail, he became increasingly reclusive, living “a sort of hermits [sic] life” in his office where a few friends occasionally visited him. The Minneapolis Tribune said: “By some unknown cause he seemed to have become soured at the world, and seldom if ever took anyone into his confidence, and never, that we know of, told any of his secrets, so that it is not known where he is from, only that he formerly lived in Florida, or whether he was ever married, nor anything, in fact about his past history. As his illness progressed, there was one person who he could count on: Armstrong English.

English was born in either Kentucky or Missouri. He was African-American and details about the date and place of his birth are, as they were for many African-Americans born before the Civil War, unclear. Missouri was most often named as his birthplace and estimates of his birth year ranged from 1830 to 1839. In the 1870 Federal Census, his age was given as 40, but ten years later the 1880 census lists his age as 41. In the 1885 Territorial Census, his age was given as 49. When he died three years later, in 1888, records indicate that he was still 49. Whenever and wherever English was born, he was living in Minnesota as early as August 1869 when R. J. Mendenhall and his wife, Abby, members of the city’s Quaker community, gave him a parcel of land valued at $350.

Spencer died on March 10, 1870, from tuberculosis. In 1872 English took the executors of Dr. Spencer’s estate to court because they had only allowed $94.50 to pay him for services rendered. Armstrong asked for $325 that he felt that he was due and also to be repaid $27 that he had loaned to Dr. Spencer. The judge more or less split the difference and granted English $1 per day for service “up to a certain time,” after which the judge ruled he was entitled to $2 a day. Since English had no proof that he had loaned $27 to Spencer, that claim was disallowed. He received $213 plus the interest that had accumulated during the two years since Spencer had died.

In April 1873, Armstrong married Caroline (Carrie) Roth. She was at least 15 years younger than her husband and was well known around town for her quick temper. Theirs was an inter-racial marriage, something of a rarity for Minneapolis in the 1870s, and while they had many loyal friends in the community, they also had plenty of detractors. That disapproval coupled with Carrie’s quick temper resulted in the couple spending a fair amount of time in court. With one exception, it was Carrie who was arrested, not her husband. The papers never reported what it was that prompted her to use “insulting and indecent language,” but given the pattern of harassment against them in the days after their marriage, it isn’t hard to imagine.

Eventually, things seem to have settled down. English, was well regarded, described in the Minneapolis Tribune as a “good natured and hard working man.” He worked for the City of Minneapolis as a chimney sweep. In addition to the two sons that they lost, they had at least two other sons and one daughter. The family lived at 2532 14th Avenue South (currently an empty lot).

Armstrong English is buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 23, Block T, in the SW ¼. His children are buried in the Potter’s Field.

Definition of ATHENAEUM

1: a building or room in which books, periodicals, and newspapers are kept for use

2: a literary or scientific association

ath·e·nae·um or ath·e·ne·um

Origin of ATHENAEUM

Latin Athenaeum, a school in ancient Rome for the study of arts, from Greek Athēnaion, a temple of Athena, from Athēnē

First Known Use: 1799

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