St. Paul park renamed for civil rights icon Roy Wilkins

Civil rights icon Roy Wilkins grew up in St. Paul’s North End — a diverse working-class neighborhood more than century ago — and now a park near the site of his boyhood home will bear his name.

The St. Paul City Council approved renaming Lewis Park, which will now be called Roy Wilkins Park, at the request of the North End Neighborhood Association.

“It was totally an idea born in the community,” said St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hahm. “They did the research and discovered this information about Roy Wilkins and it all came together after that. It was really a neat process.”

Wilkins was the national leader of the NAACP from 1955 to 1977. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

The St. Paul neighborhood park at 900 N. Marion St., which now occupies about one city block, includes the site of Wilkins’ school. It was originally named for real estate developer John Lewis, who built up the area in the 1880s.

Today, the park draws families with its playground, picnic area, trails, splash pad and open spaces perfect for games. A new sign, along with some modest park improvements including better lighting and seating, will go up this summer.

“It’s a unique place in St. Paul’s history,” said Ethan Osten, a former member of the North End neighborhood board who helped research Wilkins’ connection to the neighborhood.

Wilkins was born in St. Louis in 1901, but around age 6, he moved in with his aunt and uncle on Galtier Street in the North End. In his posthumous autobiography, he wrote of his childhood in St. Paul, including attending an integrated school.

“When we arrived at Whittier, a red brick school with a playground and a flagpole outside … I looked around at my new classmates with the timidity any new child feels in a new school. I got a quick shock. All the children were white. In St. Louis, the children at Banneker School had all been Black. I was six years old, and this was the first time I registered the difference between Black skin and white,” Wilkins wrote.

He later wrote, “I suppose the faith I have in integration comes from the days I spent in a schoolboy’s cap and knickers chasing around the quiet tree-shaded lanes that stretched off and away from our little cottage.”

Wilkins’ childhood home and school were torn down in either the late 1970s or early 1980s under the auspice of “blight clearance,” Osten said. About three blocks of the North End were razed to make room for new apartments, townhouses and a park expansion, despite a survey of residents at the time that indicated most wanted to stay and felt their community had value, he said.

“Stories such as these are critical for us as a city to recognize, to uplift so that we can honor our past and also recognize the harm that has been done through government renewal programs,” said St. Paul Council Member Dai Thao, who praised Wilkins’ contributions to the civil rights movement before the council approved the name change 7-0.

This isn’t the first public facility to bear Wilkins’ name — downtown St. Paul’s 5,000-seat arena, originally called the St. Paul Auditorium, was renamed the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in 1985.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037

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