I have a job where I get to read people's diaries. It always feels a little forbidden, like sneaking peeks at a sister's diary once you figured out where she kept the tiny key to her journal's padlock.
Not saying I ever did that. Ahem.
In this case, I'm not looking for secret crushes --- but hey, wouldn't that be interesting? Instead, I'm looking for what a personal story has to say about the history of a community.
The Edina Historical Society owns the diaries of Beverly Yancey (pictured below right), one of Edina's 17 or so black families who settled here following the Civil War. Both he and his wife Ellen played leadership roles in Edina's early life, serving on the Village Council, establishing the local PTA, and forming the Minnehaha Grange.
Their descendants donated the diaries to the Edina Historical Society many years ago.
The volumes remained in storage, occasionally reviewed by researchers looking for answers on how Edina, which once had a fully integrated community, could transform into a completely white village by the 1920s.
Narratives of the time reflect a community that seems truly "color blind," according to author Deborah Morse Kahn in her book Edina: Chapters in the City History. Various pioneers describe picnics, friendships and socializing with the Gillespies, Fytes, and Yanceys without ever mentioning their race. (See picnic photo at Yancey berry farm below from Kahn's book.)
Researchers do not find any mention of race in Yancey's journals either. As any farmer in any century, Yancey is most concerned about the weather and his crops.
At least as far as anyone can tell. Most researchers have done a cursory review only. As you can tell from the entry above, the writing is difficult to decipher:
"Wether (weather) of ____ got meel (meal) from mill Had a bad ____ chopped stove wood got a bad cold ________ children not well."
Such is the case of many diaries during this period. The diary of Sarah Baird, a fellow Granger and friend to the Yanceys, is only marginally easier to read, given the cramped writing in pencil on narrow ruled paper. James Parsons, an Edina resident and son of local historian Dudley Parsons, made a heroic effort to transcribe Sarah's diaries, housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. He completed two years, those leading up to Edina's incorporation in 1888. (The transcript is available for review at our museum.)
Volunteer Martha Johnson is now making a heroic effort to transcribe the Yancey journals. Martha has had practice decoding handwriting, having transcribed the 1931-1932 log books of Edina's first police officer Percy Redpath. Despite eye strain and slow translation, Martha finds the work interesting and rewarding.
Will the Yancey diaries reveal anything about race relations in early Edina? Probably not, at least in a direct way. Sarah Baird's diaries mention the Yanceys many times, without once noting their race or her own (white). However, Beverly Yancey will no doubt chronicle everyday life during the early settlement years in Edina and the accomplishments of two of its leading citizens, Beverly and Ellen Yancey.
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Jennifer Adam is the Executive Director of the Edina Historical Society. She welcomes your contributions. Comment on a post or send an email (see below). Traditional mail, of course, can also be sent to:
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