Looking back at 90: A complete change in America

Matthew Little holding a photo of himself in the 1960s
Matthew Little, who recently turned 90, held a photo of himself as a younger man.
Photo By: Dymanh Chhoun
I am certainly glad to have played just a small part of that completely changing America.

In the South, where I was born and educated, it was an established mores that African Americans, and to an extent, other minorities too, were basically inferior human beings.

To cite a very simple example — a black person, even though they had the same religion, could not go to the same church as whites. The same thing was true of education. There was a limit to how far they could go at all times.

In World War II, I was in the service. Of course the service at that time, like other parts of America, was segregated. You had all your black units and all the regular units. I was with the 364th Infantry, all black infantry, except for the officers, of course. The officers were white. There were only a few black officers.

I happened to be in college, Agricultural and Technical State College in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was hopeful of becoming a doctor. At my college, we took military training and we were an official unit. They called us into action, and the college president asked that they spare us until our graduation and then we all go as a unit, and we did.

After I got out of the service, I tried to get into medical school, I had the requirements and everything, but there were only two African American medical schools and after the war they were so crowded. But I had made an application while overseas and they had accepted me conditionally.

When I got out, they said they had all they could take. I had been out of school for three years or so, so I could take a few refresher courses and maybe they could enroll me next year. I agreed, and the next year again they had the same story. I got so disgusted, I said ‘To heck with this!’ and decided to go elsewhere.

Matthew Little
Born: Washington, N.C., 1921
Home: Maplewood
Moved to Minnesota: 1948
Last job before retirement: Superintendent of Diamond Lake Postal Station in Minneapolis. He also was a partner in C & L Landscape and Garden.
What do you miss about the South? I’ll tell you, the South is getting to be a heckuva lot better place now. It’s pretty hard to segregate the person who’s sitting next to you in the classroom.
Advice for someone moving to Minnesota: Let’s face it, Minnesota has undergone a lot of changes, too, as far as African Americans are concerned. Honeywell today has a black recruiter who recruits at black colleges and universities in the South. (Honeywell turned him down for a job in the 1950s.)

Flipping a coin, finding a home

I had no idea where I was going to go. But while I had been in the service I had been assigned to a troop train outfit that shipped soldiers from the west coast to the east coast. You were given a voucher you could use on any transportation, and we were given five days to get back. And so we would stop and spend some time in different cities before going back. Of course we stopped in the Twin Cities, because it was a transportation center at the time.

So it was between the Twin Cities and Denver. And I couldn’t make up my mind which one to go to. Of course, transportation at that time was by train and they asked me where I wanted a ticket for. I still couldn’t make up my mind.

And so they said, ‘Tell me soldier, where do you want to go?’ and I said, well, just a minute. And I flipped a coin. Minneapolis heads and tails Denver. The coin fell on heads. And so ‘Give me a ticket to Minneapolis.’ And I’ve been in Minneapolis ever since.

Where are all the colored people?

I didn’t know anybody here. First thing I looked for was the YMCA, and I got lodging there. But you could only stay there for a few days and so I started looking for a place to stay. I can still remember walking around downtown and I didn’t see any other black people. I said, ‘What the heck was this?’ I began to wonder if I made the right decision.

Finally, I asked a policeman, ‘Where are the colored people in this place?’ And he said, “Right off of Third Avenue, there’s a bar called Cassius Bar, and I’m sure you’ll find them there.’ And indeed, it was loaded.

*

Finding a job was my dilemma. I thought my degrees and my army service would help me find a job within my capabilities. No one seemed to say that we don’t want to hire you because you are black, but they said, ‘I will give you a notice if there is a vacancy.’ And that was the end of that.

(After being turned down for many jobs, including at Honeywell and the Minneapolis Fire Department, Little went to work for the Post Office. He also was part-owners of a landscaping business and gardening center in South Minneapolis.)

Marching on Washington

During that time I had a lot of experiences, multicultural experiences. The 28th of August in 1963 was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was a leader of the Minnesota branch of the NAACP, and the leaders of the planned march particularly wanted Minnesota representatives, and I agreed to do that.

There were a lot of conditions. They wanted to make sure that there would not be any violence. Each member that was to come would have to sign an agreement that under no circumstances would we participate in any kind of violence. Regardless of what kind of provocation was enacted upon us, we would not retaliate.

We lost a couple of our best members because of those requirements. They said, ‘What you are saying is that I’m not going to hit someone back if they hit me? I can’t commit myself to that.’ And I said well, you can’t be a member then, because that is a requirement.

The march stretched all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, and we were at the very beginning of it. Everything seemed to dim completely when Martin (Luther King) spoke. He and his speaking style had a way of just completely drawing you to it. There were 250,000 people there, and there was not a sound when Martin King spoke, when he gave that “I have a dream” speech. I will never forget it as long as I live.

I was sitting on a rock, right next to Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin, and I can remember him almost sort of dazed – King’s speaking was so dynamic. It must have convinced an awful lot of legislators, too, for I’m sure that history now records that that was a major factor in the passage in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which changed America as far as civil rights is concerned.

I learned an awful lot about people and their acceptance, sometimes reluctantly so, of people of other colors and cultures. It taught me how America to a very large extent is very amenable to becoming a multicultural nation.

No bitterness whatsoever

That people would be converted without violence — that was a kind of accomplishment for America. And though there are certain inequities that we still face, I’m convinced that the country is the best in the world. And I feel very patriotic about that, and certainly I feel absolutely no bitterness whatsoever.

The last time I went to my hometown I saw something I never in my whole life thought I would see: An African American mayor of that little city. Which during my childhood was absolutely unthinkable. That that whole society could change to elect a black mayor is a tremendous transformation. I would never have had believed it.

I am certainly glad to have played just a small part of that completely changing America. Seeing that up close certainly made an imprint in my life and made me the person that I am. And I’m glad to have been a part of it, I really am.

This story was also published in Insight News.
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