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Tales from Pioneer and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery

178th  in a Series

By SUE HUNTER WEIR

Lafayette Mason—One Mpls.’ First Black Firefighters 

Musician, Artist, and Southside High Football Captain

Other than some graffiti on about a dozen fence pillars, the Cemetery was untouched during the protests on Lake Street.  The graffiti was gone within a few days but the stories about the lives of those who are buried inside the gates continue.  It’s obvious to passersby that the Cemetery is old.  What is less obvious is that the Cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites because of the people who are buried there.  For the most part they were not famous but collectively their stories tell how the city and state were built. Some of them had ties to the early abolitionist and anti-slavery movements in Minnesota and others because it was a favored burial site for members of the early African-American community, many of whom led extraordinary lives.

Photo and caption from “The Appeal,” September 24, 1910, read “The Late Lafayette Mason, Musical Genius, Minneapolis.”

[Photo Credit] COURTESY MN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Lafayette Mason was an incredibly gifted man.  He was an athlete, an artist, and one of the city’s early African-American firefighters.  Members of three earlier generations of his family are buried near him in a block of graves purchased in the 1860s. Chloe Aidens, his great-grandmother, died from cancer on November 11, 1863.  Hers is the first recorded burial of an African-American in the cemetery. Her daughter, Harriett, died on December 19, 1891; the cause was listed only as “heart.” Harriett was married to Morgan Jones who died from “old age” on December 6, 1907, at the age of 101 after having lived a remarkable life (see http://alleynews.org/2017/12/the-cemeterys-eldest-morgan-jones-60-years-a-slave-41-years-freedman/).  He is the oldest known person to be buried in the Cemetery.  Their daughter, Katherine Luella (“Katie”), was Lafayette’s mother.

Lafayette was born on May 17, 1880.  As a child he was popular, and he was ambitious.  By the time that he was 11 years old, while he was still attending school full time, he was making “good wages” working as a messenger at the West Hotel, a fact that was mentioned in the“Appeal,” the leading local African-American newspaper at the time.  In 1898, his teammates voted him captain of the Southside (South) High School football team.

After he graduated from high school his career as a musician took off.  There are two hundred or more mentions of him in various local newspapers.  He worked in at least two department stores, both playing and selling music.  He traveled to Chicago to buy sheet music for a local five-and-dime store.  He played weekly at the Colonnade Dance Club in St. Paul and at one point ran his own dancing academy.  He played at benefit concerts for causes ranging from famine relief to fundraisers for local African-American churches.  He often played at weddings where his mother, a coloratura soprano, was the featured soloist.  He was one of the local African-American community’s leading lights—a gifted artist generous with his talents.  In 1899, the “Appeal”described him as “A Noted Pianist,” who “undoubtedly is taking a place among recognized musicians of the day, [and who] has a bright future before him.”  He got rave reviews when he, a solo pianist, stood in for a full orchestra during performances at St. Paul’s Metropolitan Opera House; he wasreportedly the first African-American to do so in any city west of New York.

Sometime around 1907 or 1908, he joined the fire department and worked alongside John Cheatham, Minneapolis’ first African-American firefighter. (http://friendsofthecemetery.org/history/alley_articles/John_Cheatham_feb2005.shtml.) It seems like something of an odd choice for a man who clearly thought of himself as a musician first and foremost.  It may be that he joined because he was engaged to be married and wanted a more stable source of income.  Whatever the reason, his career with the fire department was far too short. Lafayette Mason died from typhoid pneumonia on April 8, 1910, when he was about five weeks shy of his 30th birthday.  He was survived by his mother, stepfather, sister, and fiancé. 

He was buried next to his great-grandmother and his grandparents in the family plot.  His mother, Katherine, outlived him by 30 years and his stepfather, William Smith, by a few years longer than that.  Their story is also well worth telling but that’s for another day.  All six family members are buried in Lot 69, Block C.  None of their graves are marked.

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