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Tales from the Cemetery August ’22

by Sue Hunter Weir

When a street in South Minneapolis was renamed to honor John Cheatham, Minneapolis’ first Black firefighter, it was a big news story. It was picked up by all of the local television stations, by Minneapolis Public Radio and by the Atlanta Black Star and the Grio, a national news outlet that focuses on stories of interest to African-Americans.

The fact that he was Minneapolis’ first Black firefighter is an important story but it isn’t the whole story. His is also a story about character and community. One of the questions that wasn’t addressed is why John Cheatham was the first. Clearly, he was smart and hardworking. But he was much more than that. There were more than 50 newspaper stories about him that appeared during his lifetime. The answer to the question of what made him stand out—what made him special–is reflected in those stories.

One of the words that was often used to describe him was “respected.” He was an important member of the City’s early African-American community, a person who would be described as a pillar of the community. He had close ties to several families who have members buried in the cemetery.

His name first appears in Minnesota census records in 1875 when he was living with Morgan and Harriet Jones, and their daughter Katie. Harriet Jones was the daughter of Chloe Aidans, whose death in 1863 was the first recorded burial of an African-American in the cemetery’s records. Katie Jones was the mother of Lafayette Mason, one of the firefighters who worked with Cheatham at Fire Station #24. (See earlier Alley stories about Morgan Jones and Lafayette Mason at https://alleynews.org/2017/12/the-cemeterys-eldest-morgan-jones and https://alleynews.org/2020/07tales-from-pioneers-and-soldiers-memorial-cemetery).

In 1886, Cheatham was appointed legal guardian of Albert Butler who was described as “insane.” The connection between the two men is not clear but may have been through church. Cheatham served as pallbearer for several friends, at least one of whom is buried in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers. He was a Mason and served as chaplain for the Anchor Hilliard Lodge.

In 1894, the Minneapolis Daily Times listed the names of firefighters who had rescued “several persons…from a fiery grave.” John Cheatham was one of the men mentioned.

In 1902, a tragic event occurred in Birmingham, Alabama where 2,000 people attended a lecture by Booker T. Washington during the national Baptist convention. An altercation between two men in attendance triggered a stampede in which 110 people, mostly women, died. One of those in attendance was Reverend Matthew W. Withers, pastor of Bethesda Baptist Church, the church that the Cheathams attended. When Reverend Withers returned home, members of his congregation turned out to console him. They gathered outside of his home and sang the church song, “No, Never Alone,” John Cheatham and his two daughters were there. (Note: Lena Potts, Reverend Withers’ sister, Lena Potts, is buried in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery).

Cheatham’s two great loves were his church, Bethesda Baptist, and his family. He had four children with his first wife Susie. We’ve long known that Susie, who died in 1911, was buried near her father but only recently discovered that Bertha, the younger of his two daughters, is also buried near her parents. She died in 1916 and her record is under her married name, Bertha Stephens.

In 1907,. when the controversy arose about the City’s building a fire station to house Black firefighters, Cheatham told a reporter that what he wanted was for his children to have an education. Both Susie and Bertha graduated from South High. Both girls’ studies focused on literature.

Cheatham’s tenure in the fire department was not without problems. In 1899, he was demoted from captain to pipeman. The details have been lost to history but he was supposedly insubordinate to a superior officer. Cheatham’s defense was that there was a higher ranking man on the scene and that’s whose orders he believed he should follow. Cheatham allegedly used profane language but there is no record of what either of the men said or the tone in which they said it. His cause was taken up by the Afro-American League and other organizations but the demotion stood. But his career quickly recovered and in a few short years, he was a captain once again and placed in charge of Firestation #24. When help was needed John Cheatham was there, and when he needed help, the community rallied.

There is even more to say about John Cheatham and his family but that will have to wait. All told there are nine members of his family buried in the cemetery, his first wife Susie, his second wife Elizabeth and her second husband, two daughters, one sister, a brother-in-law, and a niece.

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