In today's blog, we take a close look at one of Minneapolis’s most influential labor organizers. Anthony Brutus Cassius helped form Minnesota’s first racially integrated union. He was also a lifelong philanthropist, civil rights activist and sports fan.
Early Life and Cassius’s First Union
Anthony Cassius was born in 1907. At age 13, racial violence forced him to flee his home in Oklahoma. He headed north to St. Paul, where he began taking classes and playing football at Mechanic Arts High School. He excelled in school, despite spending most of his evenings sleeping in the basement of the hotel where he was employed.
The Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, here pictured in 1948.
Source: Minnesota Historical Society
In 1929, after graduating high school with a stellar record, Cassius took a serving job at the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis. At this particular hotel, the waitstaff were all black, while the clientele and management were all white. In conversations with both black and white wait staff across the city, Cassius became aware that the black waitstaff at the Curtis Hotel’s $17/month was nowhere near the $75/month made by their white counterparts at other local hotels. He attempted to organize with the larger Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, but was denied collaboration as the union did not accept black workers. So in 1930, Cassius organized his own union: the all-black Local 614 hotel and restaurant employees’ union was chartered by the AFL.
Local 614 was a remarkably successful union. To the surprise of many, Cassius’s union sued the Curtis Hotel. As head of the Local, he not only succeeded in demanding equal pay with white waiters at other hotels, but also received back pay for the workers. Cassius facilitated all of this negotiation without a strike.
Cassius’s civil rights organizing extended beyond the labor movement. He spent significant time in his early 20s organizing against the Twin Cities public showings of the re-released film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the KKK. Through his work on such campaigns, Cassius became entrenched in a growing community of elite African American civil rights leaders, including lawyer Lena Olive Smith. (For more on Smith and other 1930s Minneapolis African American leaders, visit our “Who Influenced Hubert Humphrey?” blog post.)
Source: Minnesota Historical Society
An Advocate for Integration
Cassius did not deny that 1930s Minneapolis was a hostile environment for many African Americans. Yet he always worked expertly and patiently with union and civil rights leaders across racial lines.
In the 1930s, the creation of new work opportunities (via the post-Depression “New Deal”) meant Minnesota’s working population became more racially diverse. Around this time, many labor organizers began to see that racial prejudice and animosity were barriers to strong unions.
In 1935, Cassius partnered with leaders of other existing hotel and restaurant unions to reverse this trend. These leaders represented a variety of white ethnic backgrounds, including Greek and Scandinavian, and were employed as elevator operators and bellhops, among others. Together with Cassius, they formed Local 665 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union. It was the first multiracial union in Minnesota, and brought together many previously unorganized hotel and service staff.
Not only did the union give these workers a collective voice, but Cassius felt that the structure of the union gave African Americans a chance to be leaders. Cassius supported the union for many years. In the late 1930s, he felt that his work had set the stage for other African Americans to take on leadership roles in the union. It was time for Cassius to pursue other dreams.
A Community Hub
At this time, a vibrant black professional community was growing and thriving in South Minneapolis. The intersection of 38th Street & 4th Avenue South was the center of the community, with civil rights organizations, a black-owned newspaper and many residences of local leaders.
This neighborhood didn’t form by chance. The area surrounding this intersection had been “red-lined” by local mortgage bankers; this red line drawn on a city map was used to tell white residents looking for real estate that their investment was not “safe” in this area, as the area had a large African American population. This process was also used to deny African Americans home loans outside of all-black neighborhoods. Red-lining, which occurred explicitly as recently as the 1950s, presented a legal loophole that allowed segregation to pervade Minneapolis.
Despite the racist motivations of developers, the local African American community created beauty and power in their community. Even in the mid-1930s, famous and less-known African Americans alike were often turned away at downtown Minneapolis’ finer establishments.
In 1937, Cassius decided to support his community in a new way. He opened Dreamland Cafe at 38th Street & 4th Avenue, at the center of this thriving African American neighborhood. This fashionable restaurant was noted as being one of the city’s few establishments that was frequented by blacks and whites alike.
Dreamland Cafe became an informal cultural hub for the growing communities of South Minneapolis. Even celebrities like African American singer, actress and activist Lena Horne stopped by Dreamland Cafe while on tour through Minneapolis. She had been staying near the cafe with friends who lived in the neighborhood. (Cassius noted that this was because even famous African Americans couldn’t get a hotel room downtown.)
Anthony Cassius behind the bar at his downtown establishment in the 1950s.
Source: Hennepin County Library Special Collections, via Historyapolis
Ever the advocate for integration, Cassius decided to open a similar restaurant and bar in downtown Minneapolis in 1946. Despite his local prominence in the business community, he was not granted his requested licenses. Three years later, though, he became the first African American in Minneapolis to be granted both a significant business loan and a liquor license. That year, he opened the Cassius Club Cafe restaurant and bar. Here in this stylish cafe, blacks and whites could gather together — a first for downtown Minneapolis’ sophisticated restaurant scene.
Advocacy on the Field
In addition to Cassius’s impressive track record in civil rights, labor and entrepreneurship, he was also a lifelong advocate of sports. Starting in high school when he played football for Mechanic Arts, Cassius saw the empowering potential of sports.
He spent much of his life supporting African American sports clubs in the Twin Cities. While serving as president of the Urban League, Cassius brought Jackie Robinson to Minneapolis to speak. His restaurant sponsored softball teams and one baseball team, with one of his players going on to pitch for the Chicago Cubs. Cassius was also president of the Golden Gloves youth boxing program for five years, bringing it back to life locally by raising funds and even coaching a few boxers himself.
Cassius was a sports fan through and through. He attended 17 or 18 World Series in a row, as well as 16 All-Star Games and 3 Super Bowls. He would travel with his camera, and took many pictures of famous African American athletes in action. His photos included both Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis in the ring, and Jackie Robinson stealing home. He commissioned local artists — including some African American amateur athletes who also pursued art — to paint some of these historic moments. He displayed these large-scale paintings in his restaurant. Four such paintings, owned and commissioned by Cassius, were purchased by the Minnesota Historical Society shortly before his death in 1983.
This painting, now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society, depicts Jackie Robinson stealing home in the 1955 World Series. It hung in Cassius’s downtown bar/restaurant.
Source: Minnesota Historical Society
Anthony Cassius may no longer be a household name among many Minneapolitans. But his limitless energy for civil rights and persistent entrepreneurial drive helped promote integration at local business, organizations and social spaces. He is buried in Section 55 at Lakewood.
Sources for this article:
Kirsten Delegard, “‘Don’t Be Fooled By Appearances:’ A.B. Cassius and the fight to integrate public spaces in Minneapolis,” Historyapolis
Jennifer Delton, “Labor, Politics, and African American Identity in Minneapolis, 1930-1950,” Minnesota History Magazine
Anthony Cassius, Oral History, Minnesota Historical Society
“Black History and Its Influence on the E. 38th Street Community - Walking Tour (description)”, Preserve Minneapolis