Robert Samples: Hard Road To The American Dream
When Bob and Mary Jane Samples moved to the Twin Cities from Iowa in 1951, they were determined to find a home in a nice part of town. Bob found a job as a clerk in the accounting department of the First National Bank of Minneapolis, and the couple moved their young family into a home in the suburb of Richfield – one of the first two African American families to take up residence there. Finding a suitable home was just the beginning in the Samples family's journey to achieve the American dream. Historian Jerry Abraham interviewed Mr. Samples for his book, Voices from Minnesota: Short Biographies from Thirty-two Senior Citizens (DeForest Press, 2004). The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author.
[The Samples] had one week to find a permanent place to live. Of course that was not a very long time, but Bob and Mary Jane added another hurdle for themselves. They decided that they would not move into a ghetto area. To top it off, they even had trouble getting a real estate agent to help them. Finally a freelance agent contacted them with just two days left to find a house. The agent found a suitable house in Richfield. The house needed some work, which Bob and Mary Jane were willing to do. In addition, the owner was anxious to sell. A deal was struck. Bob had the money for a down payment, and his bank was willing to give him a mortgage. They moved into the house on July 3, 1951.
Settling into the neighborhood was not easy. July fourth was a holiday, and many people were away. On July fifth, Bob went down to the hardware store to buy tools so he could start fixing up the house. Now people of the neighborhood had an opportunity to see who had moved into the area. Later the same day, Bob was pulling a wagon down the street. He was going to buy some ice for their ice box. Along came a garbage hauler. After asking Bob if he lived in the house, he advised Bob to sell the house because the people in the neighborhood would not like it. When Bob replied that he wouldn't sell, the garbage hauler said, "We'll see about that." When he was returning with the ice, the garbage hauler's assistant came up to him and warned him that we should take the garbage hauler's advice. He said the garbage hauler was mean. Bob's reply was that he was mean, too. More was to come.
That evening, Bob was outside mowing his lawn. He noticed a stream of cars driving by his house. The cars were bumper-to-bumper, very unusual for a residential street. His wife and mother-in-law also saw the parade of cars. The next day, the tension escalated. After work, Bob noticed cars streaming by his house again, but this time they were headed for a meeting called by the garbage hauler at a local tavern. Bob wanted to telephone Frank Faeger to let him know what was happening. Unfortunately their telephone had not yet been installed in their new home. Bob had to walk to a pay phone. His path was taking him past the tavern. Luckily, as he was nearing a gas station, Bob heard a "beep" behind him. The sound nearly frightened him to death, but it turned out to be Frank Faeger. Talk about good fortune! Bob told him what was going on. Frank left and came back with a minister. They talked about what to do in case a mob showed up. At that moment, a knock was heard at the door. The visitor introduced himself as George Rice and said that he lived in the neighborhood. He volunteered to go to the tavern and report back what was happening. George Rice turned out to be a part-time reporter for the Minneapolis Star newspaper. Later, a rather large policeman came to the door. He informed Bob that they had a squad car nearby and they were watching for any trouble that might come along.
George came back with a report. Before the meeting, Bob said George reported that small children were standing outside the bar. They were asking some of the adults why they did not want black people living in the neighborhood. During the meeting, one guy who had a British accent rose and asked if it was an open meeting. When told that it was, he said he was against everything the garbage hauler was saying. Suggestions at the meeting included whether to buy out the Samples, kill them, burn them out, or do nothing. In the end, the people from the area did nothing.
Bob wanted to make the point that such attitudes were not isolated. He told an anecdote to illustrate. A black man was hired as a bus driver in the Chicago area. He searched for a home near his bus route, which was in Cicero. He rented an apartment and furnished it with new furniture. Neighborhood people broke into the apartment, threw the furniture out, and ransacked the apartment. Bob said that police were at the scene but refused to act. This event took place at about the same time Bob and his family were facing the difficulty accounted above.
It was still July 1951, and Bob did not have to go back to work until July fifteenth. He had a few more days to get the house organized. Bobby, the oldest son, was four years old. He had a tricycle, and in the spirit of adventure, wanted to ride down the street to play with the other children. When he asked Bob, he was told no. Bobby was persistent and kept asking for the next two days without success. Finally, he decided to sneak down the street. Bob saw what he was up to and realized that he had to let his son go sometime. Soon his son was pedaling down the street. But he did not find any children outside. Their mothers made them come in. Bobby came back puzzled about why the children went in. It was an incident that really stressed out Bob and Mary Jane.
In another vein, the Sample family became parishioners in a new Roman Catholic Church in the area. ...Yet another incident was tied to this. Bob and his wife collaborated on a play for the church called The Twig Is Bent. One day a parent of one of the boys Bobby frequently fought with approached Bob. The parent offered to organize a stage crew for the play. Bob thought it was great. Then came the dress rehearsal. The parent brought the crew, but they stayed in the back of the gym and did nothing. Luckily, some Franciscan seminarians jumped in and helped out while the crew stood in the back and laughed. The play was given on a Friday and Saturday, and the seminarians' work helped make it a success.
Racial attitudes proved to be persistent whether in the neighborhood community or the church community. Bob heard over and over again that the Samples were okay, but people did not want more blacks coming into their community. This type of attitude spurred Bob and Mary Jane to become more active. Mary Jane joined the League of Women Voters. Bob joined a church group called the Catholic Interracial Council. A panel discussion on housing was to be held at the College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul. Bob was asked to be one of the panelists. That event was what led to Bob's involvement in the council. He went on to be elected president twice.
...It was during a term as president of the Catholic Interracial Council when the March on Washington took place in 1963. Upon their return, Bob and others had several requests to travel the state and speak about the experience. One day, Jack Ewing called him into his office at the bank. Instead of reprimanding Bob for going here and there, Ewing offered him the use of the company car – a very selfless act.
...Bob continued working for the bank until 1966. He had achieved his own desk and supervisory duties. However, he was also aware of the fact that he had hit the glass ceiling. But the lure of local activism was still pulling him. He still had the desire to improve the conditions of the people in the community.
Editor's note: Robert Samples later moved to South Minneapolis, and continued to work for racial equality within the community. He was involved with the Interracial Council's program to help kids stay in school, and also with the Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center (TCOIC), a program designed to give job training to disadvantaged adults.
Abraham, Jerry, Voices from Minnesota: Short Biographies from Thirty-two Senior Citizens. Elk River: Minnesota: DeForest Press, 2004.
Branches. Saint Paul/Minneapolis: Catholic Interracial Council of the Twin Cities, 1959-[1968?]; Minnesota Historical Society Serials Collection.
Council Records, 1963-1974. Minnesota Council on Religion and Race; Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection.
Johnson, Frederick L., Richfield: Minnesota's Oldest Suburb. Richfield, MN: Richfield Historical Society, 2008.