Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Matthew Little: Fighting the Fires of Injustice

Matthew Little, an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in Minnesota in the post-war era, was born in Washington, North Carolina in 1921. He experienced racial discrimination in the south and described it as "dehumanizing to African Americans," but accepted the indignities at the time as a way of life. He received a college degree from North Carolina A & T in Greensboro before spending three and one-half years in military service during World War II. He came to Minneapolis in 1948 when he was unable to go to medical school due to the large number of veterans seeking admission.

His activism for civil rights began when he was denied a job with the Minneapolis fire department because of his race. He became a member of the local chapter of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], served as chairman for the Minnesota delegation that attended the March on Washington in 1963 and, eventually, as President for the Minneapolis chapter. He has continued his dedicated involvement with the NAACP throughout his life and his work has been recognized with numerous awards, including an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Minnesota conferred in 2002.

Historian Jerry Abraham interviewed Matthew Little for his book, Voices from Minnesota: Short Biographies from Thirty-two Senior Citizens (DeForest Press, 2004). The following excerpt from that interview is reprinted here with permission from the author.

JA: ...So you ended up in Minneapolis in 1948. OK, you're here, you don't have a job, you don't know anybody, so what did you do?

ML: I stayed at the YMCA downtown for four days. I walked around the downtown area. I felt so out of place because I didn't see another black person those whole four days. The other thing was I didn't realize it was going to be so cold, either.

JA: Yeah, you came in the dead of winter.

ML: Really that didn't bother me too much because I had been in the service in the Aleutian Islands. That was my last stay. Finally I asked a cop, I said, "Where in the heck do black people live around here?" He said, "Well, I'll tell you; if you go down between Third and Fourth Avenue, there is a bar that's owned by a colored person. I'm sure if you go in there you would find some coloreds." So I followed his directions and I went there and sure enough it was full of black people. They really looked good. I hadn't seen any for a while. I sat there at the bar and struck up a conversation. The first thing I asked was where could a person find someplace to stay. They told me to take that streetcar on Fourth Avenue and get off at 38th Street. There was a barbershop there. Ask somebody in that barbershop and they will tell you where you can find someplace to live. So I did and they told me that up on 41st and Fourth Avenue, the second house from the corner, there was a lady by the name of Mrs. Smith that was taking in renters. That I did. That's how I got in contact with Minneapolis, Minnesota.

JA: ...It takes a lot of courage to go to different part of the country and not know anybody… You...just persevered.

ML: Yeah.

JA: OK, you have a place to stay. Now what about a job?

ML: ...Well everyplace that somebody that would tell me, I put in a resume. They would smile and say, "OK, we'll give you a call." But nothing happened. So I went back to...waiting tables. I had done that during the summer when I was in college and after I got out of service, too. ...So I got a job at the Curtis Hotel... It was for dinner only. Later I was able to serve lunch at the Dyckman Hotel. ...It was on Sixth Street. It was another nice hotel at that time. I worked there and, in the mean time, I began to become familiar with some people and everything and they told me some places that I could get a job. I tried but didn't get much luck...

[Speaking] of jobs, I had one of the most harrowing experiences [that] actually had a greater impact on me than all of the segregation I had been subject to in the south. ...Somebody had told me they were hiring firemen. I looked at the pay scales and thought, "Boy that's a pretty good pay scale. They are paying pretty good." So I applied for it. ...There were two hundred-and-some applicants. Each applicant had a big number across his front. That was what you used all the way through instead of your name.

There were three different portions. There was the physical, which I really excelled in. One portion of the physical test required you to run 100 yards with another person on your back. They said I broke the record for that as far as time was concerned. So [in] the physical I did fine. I scored high on the written part too because I was a college grad and I'm sure that some of them weren't. The third part was an oral interview. In order to qualify, you would have to make at least a 75 on each part. If you made less that 75 on any of them, that would disqualify you. It so happened that this was the first time that they actually could identify you as a person instead of a number. I will always remember that oral interview. There were three retired fire captains. They each asked me one question. Why did I want to be a fireman? Why did I want to leave the job that I had now? And thirdly, did my wife know that I want to be a fireman? I answered them truthfully. They gave me a score of 74 points, which disqualified me for the whole thing.

I was so disgusted when I found out. I went to the Civil Service and asked them, "What was the basis?" They said they had nothing at all to do with the grading. That was on the basis with the firemen and they had to accept it. There was nothing they could do about that at all. ...[Finally] one of the girls in the office told me the name of one of those firemen. ...So one Sunday morning I woke up and went over there to see him... He said, "I'll be very frank with you. I've been in the fire department for 35 years and the one thing that's important in firefighting is the buddy system. You have to live with him. You have to eat with him. You have to take him on as if he were your brother. I just don't think it would work unless we have an all black fire department." So that was his reason. I didn't know what to say. That really set the tone for me. That was the thing that got me started as far as working with the civil rights was concerned in which I eventually, of course, became the head of the NAACP for a long period of time and headed the [Minnesota delegation to the] March on Washington [in 1963]. As a matter of fact, as head of the NAACP...a case had come to me from a black person who was trying to get into the fire department and was, he felt, discriminated against. I...filed a suit against them...with the help of the national office and had a local firm here also to work with me on that. It gave me the greatest amount of pleasure because I had documented, and it had been documented down at the Civil Service too, the fact [of] what my grades [were]. So I was one of the key witnesses. In addition to bringing the suit on behalf of the NAACP, I was also one of the key witnesses in that regard. We won that federal suit. As a part of the settlement...they had to agree to hire, I think it was, twenty qualified blacks before they completed the other hiring. So I felt real good about that.

JA: ...Isn't the Minneapolis fire department the most diverse in the country now?

ML: It's one of them, and that was the beginning. There's no doubt about it. As a matter of fact, they have so many blacks involved in the Minneapolis fire department at this time that they have an Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighter's Association that has regular meetings and they are aligned with a national Black Fireman's Association. At one of their conventions the local blacks gave me an honor for the part that I played in that regard, a plaque, which I still have at home.


Little, Matthew; Jerry Abraham, Interviewer Oral history interview, Jerry Abraham, used with permission.

Abraham, Jerry, Voices from Minnesota: Short Biographies from Thirty-two Senior Citizens. Elk River: Minnesota: DeForest Press, 2004.

Little, Matthew, Papers relating to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963). Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection.