In the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, there’s a gated community of about 22,000. The area is green and quiet, despite the roar of traffic on nearby Lake Street.
Many of the residents came from Scandinavia. But there are also quite a few African-Americans. There’s even a Latvian Jewish Socialist.
Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery is the oldest surviving cemetery in the city. The first burial was in 1853. It’s also the only Minnesota cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Friends of the Cemetery has been raising money for about a decade to rehab the cemetery’s big iron fence. They still have about half a million dollars to go. Ironically, one of the group’s most successful fundraising and outreach tactics has been to host concerts and other events that bring people inside the confines of the old gates.
“It’s particularly important, for this one, because it’s a not very active, if you will, cemetery,” Friends of the Cemetery’s resident historian Sue Hunter Weir said. “But it is a very, very important piece of the city’s history.”
(Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers’ resident historian Sue Hunter Weir; Image: Jon Collins)
The Friends of the Cemetery group is organizing their second ever outdoor concert this summer. The Duluth band Low is headlining the show in front of the caretaker’s cottage on June 9.
When they first organized an outdoor concert last year, some in the neighborhood balked at the ghoulishness of a gathering in a cemetery.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Aren’t you scared, don’t you believe in ghosts?’ I’m like, ‘No,’” Hunter Weir said. “These were nice people, what am I supposed to be worried about here.”
The outdoor concert events purposely point back to earlier times, when cemeteries were seen as a refuge from the chaos of city life.
“This was the place you could go for quiet reflection and just to gather your thoughts when there was the industrial revolution,” said Aaron Hanauer, a city planner and volunteer. “This cemetery was placed back in the 1850s in a place at the edges of Minneapolis, and the city just continued to grow and it just overtook the cemetery.”
Last year’s concert, which organizers said was both a financial and social success, featured Minneapolis songwriter Jeremy Messersmith, who lives across the street.
“It felt like a real, ‘Hey, we all live in this neighborhood,’ and if you don’t, ‘Welcome to our neighborhood,’” Messersmith said. “To see a bunch of little kids dancing around tombstones was just great. It just felt fantastic and primal.”
That sort of inclusive spirit was evident from the cemetery’s beginnings, said Hunter Weir.
“It was never racially segregated,” Hunter Weir said. “Never.”
The cemetery’s founder, Martin Layman, came from a strong anti-slavery church, which is why many African-Americans, like Toussaint L’Ouverture Grey, are buried there. Toussaint was the son of free black settlers in the area, Emily and Ralph Grey. The Greys played a major role in an early court case about slavery in Minnesota.
There are a few other big names that found their final rest in the Phillips neighborhood. But you’ll find most prominent Minneapolitans of the past century buried at Lakewood Cemetery in the city’s lake district, with its polished architecture and ambitious monuments. In Pioneers and Soldiers, by contrast, only one-in-ten graves still has a marker. Many of the wood and iron markers have disintegrated due to weather, vandalism or pollution.
For Hunter Weir, it’s the Phillips neighborhood, which itself contains a thriving working class immigrant community, that inspires her efforts to show younger generations the cemetery and teach them about the people buried there.
“I’m absolutely fascinated by who we leave out of history,” Hunter Weir said. “The way I always describe this particular cemetery is: these are the people who quite literally built the city of Minneapolis.”