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Tales from the Cemetery: Righting History

By SUE HUNTER WEIR

Something important happened in Minneapolis at 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Street signs along the nine-block stretch of road between 34th Street and 43rd Street in South Minneapolis were replaced. What had been known as Dight Avenue became Cheatham Avenue. It’s the kind of change that causes some folks to rage about “cancel culture,” but others will see it for what it is—honoring John Cheatham, an honorable man whose contributions to the city’s history should have been recognized long ago.

Charles F. Dight, a Socialist, served on the Minneapolis City Council from 1914 to 1918. He was one of three Socialists on the City Council at the time but the only one who lived in what was more or less a tree house that he built on 39th Avenue and Minnehaha Creek. He was described as a “conservative Socialist” meaning that he opposed the use of violence to effect social change which was not in and of itself a bad thing. If it stopped there, he might have gone down in history as an amiable eccentric. But he was not. He advocated for the forced sterilization of those who were deemed “defective.” It got worse. In 1933, he wrote to Hitler, praising him for his support for eliminating “mental defectives.”

So how did he get a street named after him? The honor was conferred on him by his City Council colleagues at the end of his second term. To be fair, his belief in eugenics was not widely known. That became clear in 1923 when he founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society. It appears that the honor was bestowed upon him because his colleagues and local newspaper editors believed that he had come to his senses—that he had become a “Bad Socialist,” someone whose political party refused to endorse his candidacy for reelection. In the midst of the “Red Scare” that followed the Russian Revolution, when others of his party were under surveillance, arrested, and deported for their political beliefs, he was not “an object of suspicion.” He was, according to the Minneapolis Tribune: “…too good an American to be a good 1918 Socialist.” A street was named after him not for his accomplishments, a few of which were good, although relatively minor, but because of the political climate at the time.

John Cheatham was the first Black firefighter in the City of Minneapolis. He was born in Missouri and was eight years old when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. He relocated to Minneapolis and held a number of jobs before being appointed to the fire department in 1888. By 1899, he had been promoted three times and became the first Black Fire Captain in the city.

An article in the Minneapolis Journal noted that Cheatham had “distinguished himself” in the House of the Good Shepherd fire and said that there was “no man on the books of the department who can show a better record.”

He and his wife, Susie, owned a home at 3020 20th Avenue. Their four children, Ethel, Bertha, Gilbert and Wesley, attended South High School, and the family belonged to Bethesda Baptist Church. On June 16, 1906, Susie Cheatham died from typhoid; she was 46 years old. Their daughter, Ethel, (also called Susie) died on April 16, 1911, from tuberculosis at the age of 25. John Cheatham died on August 15, 1918, from chronic endocarditis at the age of 63. He is buried next to his wife and his daughter in Lot 34, Block D, in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery.

The current Fire Chief Bryan Tyner had this to say about renaming the street: “I am very excited, extremely proud and thankful of the fact that the City of Minneapolis is honoring the legacy of Captain John Cheatham in this way. I have always believed that I stand on the shoulders of those pioneering Black firefighters who came before me.”

Representation matters. Black lives matter. Thank you to Judge LaJune Lange, City Council Representative Andrew Johnson, and many. many others for making this happen. RIP John Cheatham.

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