Born into an America that considered him property, Capt. John Cheatham spent his life protecting the lives and property of his neighbors in Minneapolis.
In the new year, the city he safeguarded will rename one of its streets in his honor.
Dight Avenue, a good street with a bad name, is about to get a better one.
Cheatham was born enslaved in 1855. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation just before his 8th birthday, and the Cheatham family left St. Louis for Minneapolis not long after.
“He was a person who wanted to uplift more than just himself,” said retired Hennepin County District Judge LaJune Lange, who has researched the history of Minneapolis’ Black firefighters for decades.
Cheatham joined the fire department in 1888, making him one of the first Black firefighters in Minneapolis, if not the very first. He distinguished himself and rose through the ranks to become the city’s first Black fire captain.
In 1907 he was assigned to segregated Fire Station 24, at Hiawatha Avenue and 45th Street. The old station, now home to Adventures in Cardboard, stands not far from the street that will bear the captain’s name.
Charles Fremont Dight is history.
The street’s original namesake was a doctor, a former Minneapolis alderman who served the city during the same era as Cheatham, a champion of food safety and a big, big fan of Adolf Hitler.
This is the last drop of ink I plan to spill on Charles Fremont Dight. He founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society and championed policies that forcibly sterilized generations of vulnerable people in state institutions. His gushing letter to Hitler is archived at the Minnesota Historical Society. His story is known.
John Cheatham is the history we didn’t learn. This is his story.
The newly emancipated Cheatham family arrived in a Minnesota where Black men still could not vote or hold office or serve on juries, and they certainly couldn’t draw a paycheck as a city firefighter.
It would take three statewide votes over the next five years, and a massive organizing effort by Minnesota’s disenfranchised citizens, to persuade the white men who were the state’s only voters to scrub the whites-only language from the state constitution. Minnesota and Iowa extended the franchise to all men in 1868, two years before the 15th Amendment spelled out the right to vote for all men, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Young John Cheatham grew up watching his community work together for their rights, then joined the work himself.
“It seems like John Cheatham had a great deal of influence with the power brokers downtown,” Lange said. “His voice was bigger than the fire station.”
Fire Station 24 was established in the middle of the redlined neighborhoods along the rail yards, where Black families had begun to buy houses. A fire chief told the newspapers at the time that they needed someplace to station the city’s few Black firefighters, because their white co-workers refused to sleep in a bed or wash in a basin that a Black man had used.
When the Black crews moved into the station, howls of protest went up from some neighbors. You can’t have Black men in that building, they told the papers. White women might walk past it.
This is our history. But so is the fact that other neighbors rallied to defend the firefighters and save the station and its horse-drawn fire truck.
“It’s about time,” said City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who represents the 40 or so households along the nine-block stretch of the future Cheatham Avenue.
By the time the city officially changes the street signs, drivers using online maps and mail deliveries will get where they need to go regardless of the name used. City officials are hoping to locate some of Cheatham’s descendants for the dedication ceremony; he and his wife, Susie, bought a house in south Minneapolis and raised their four children there.
In this part of south Minneapolis, most of the streets are numbered. Which makes your name on a street an even more singular honor, Johnson noted.
That honor goes to “somebody who stood up to serve our community when it was such a difficult thing for him to do because of the color of his skin and the racism directed at him,” Johnson said.
“That took courage. That was real dedication to the people of Minneapolis,” he added. “That was inspiring. That is worthy of the honor.”
If you never look at the bad chapters of history, you miss all the people who worked toward the good.
If you turn the page on someone like Charles Dight, you make room for someone like John Cheatham.