Minneapolis, MN

The Twin Cities Brewery Boycott of 1935

Matt Reicher

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Appreciation -- Twin City Brewery StyleJuly 12, 1935 Minneapolis Spkoesman

“When prohibition was repealed, it was thought that the reopening of employment in the brewing and distilling industry would be open in a larger measure to all American citizens, including the Negro. That this hope has not been realized in many localities may be illustrated by the fact that not a single brewery in Minneapolis or St. Paul has one of the Negro group in its employ,” ~ Cecil Newman

The Twin Cities brewery boycott of 1935 occurred after local breweries refused calls to add black employees to their workforce. Cecil Newman, editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder newspapers, called for local communities to buy beer from companies with diverse hiring practices.

While the change he and others hoped for wasn’t immediate, it eventually came.

After the repeal of National Prohibition in 1933, breweries re-opened for business and put people back to work. In the Twin Cities alone, thousands rejoined the labor force, becoming employees of any of the five breweries in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Unfortunately, that didn't include everyone. Local breweries, distributors, and other organizations affiliated with the industry steadfastly refused to hire black workers.

In January 1935, Cecil Newman, co-founder and editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder newspapers called out the unfair hiring practices of local brewers. He noted that none of the Twin Cities breweries had a black employee on their payroll. Only one company affiliated with the industry, Engesser Distributing Company of Minneapolis, employed a black person – a delivery driver.

Newman felt that the brewing industry had thrived with money from the black community and should be willing to give them a chance at gainful employment as opportunities arose.

When Prohibition ended, it should have been a boon to Minnesotans statewide, but local breweries kept the Twin Cities black community from gainful employment with the until recently shuttered industry. They were the most recent group to willfully neglect the black community, but far from the first.

In Newman's opinion, Twin Cities companies had historically taken advantage of the African-American workforce, making them the "last to be hired and first to be fired." Local breweries' reluctance to diversify their workforce, even a little bit, was a continuation of an unfortunate status quo.

Local industry-at-large, standing behind an autonomy to hire as they pleased, refused to comply. Companies maintained there was no legal mandate, so they'd continued their current hiring practices. On May 10, 1935, in response to the lack of opportunities for the black workers in the Twin Cities, Newman called for a boycott of local brewers and their products.

He noted that historically the black community had been steadfast supporters of local products, including local beer. They weren't only consumers but great promoters of local goods – not only buying for themselves but going out of their way to tell others how great they were.

Unfortunately, that relationship was incredibly one-sided, at least as far as the local beer market was concerned.

The fact that none of the thousands of employees in the brewing industry was black was a slap in the face. Newman called for the five breweries in the Twin Cities to hire a total of twenty-five African American employees between them. Considering the size of the local workforce, it was a small request to diversify their ranks, but one that would go a long way to ease the concerns of the local black community.

It began as little more than a request for the breweries to support the people who helped them succeed.

In his opinion, it didn't matter which company did what, as long as the final result was the employment of twenty-five black men. They weren't asking other people to lose their jobs, only to be considered for future vacancies as they arose. Unfortunately, the breweries declined.

A hard-line approach against diversifying their hiring practices was an odd stance to take. Local beer, whether or not it was the preferred choice of Twin Cities customers-of-color, certainly was not required for survival. After having their concerns swept aside on multiple occasions, it became time to hit the breweries where it mattered most – their bottom line.

This meant not buying beer from local breweries and their distribution partners, as well as the hotels, restaurants, and other entities that sold it.

The backlash against them, from both white and black customers, was immediate. Customers against what they saw as unfair labor practices stopped spending their money on local beer, instead choosing to buy from companies beyond the Twin Cities with a diverse workforce.

Local breweries blamed local unions, noting that they dictated many of the hiring decisions. While this was likely true, Newman countered that unions didn't have 100% control over every position at a brewery. Union representatives, for their part, understood that there was no reason not to hire employees of color. They just chose not to.

The eleven-month boycott played out in both the Spokesman and Recorder newspapers. Newman's campaign for equality featured front-page editorials, letters from customers, and cartoons ridiculing local brewers. It was part of local news for several years but unfortunately didn't create the change it had hoped for – at least not right away.

Local breweries didn't begin hiring African-American employees until after World War II.

Cecil Newman always promised to "speak incessantly without fear of injustice, discrimination, and all inequality imposed," and he did just that. He took on local breweries, a powerful entity, and while he didn't necessarily get what he hoped. At least initially. He was able to show the plight of racial discrimination and gain advocates for his cause.

His fight against the hiring practices of the local breweries was his first chance to use the Spokesman and Recorder to push for a better life for the black community, but it was far from his last. In the years that followed, Newman would continue to use his platform to push for equality.

Sources

  • Hoverson, Doug. Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
  • Nathanson, Iric. "From the Magazine: Spokesman for the Community." Hennepin History Museum. Last modified 2010. https://hennepinhistory.org/spokesman/.
  • Newman, Cecil. "Is it Fair?" Minneapolis Spokesman, May 10, 1935, 1.
  • Newman, Cecil. "Proof of the Pudding." Minneapolis Spokesman, July 5, 1935, 1.
  • "Newman, Cecil (1903–1976)." MNopedia | Minnesota Encyclopedia. Last modified June 15, 2021. https://www.mnopedia.org/person/newman-cecil-1903-1976.

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Freelance historian writing about Minnesota's beer and brewing history for Minnesota Then.

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