The Hamline Hotel, at 543 N. Snelling Ave, was the site of one of the earliest sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement in St. Paul.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) a Black organizer and activist who supported a non-violent, pacifist approach to change, was invited to speak at a week-long series of meeting in January, 1947. He was the Secretary-Treasurer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE.) One of the sponsors of the events, Professor Russell Compton of Hamline University, made reservations for Rustin at the hotel where many visiting Hamline scholars stayed.
When Rustin got to the hotel around 8 pm, the young woman at the desk initially told him that there was not a reservation on file for him. Flustered, she sought the manager, who then told Rustin that there were no vacant rooms. Rustin responded by telling the manager that he, Rustin, would take a seat in the hotel lobby until a room was available.
Though asked to leave, Rustin remained in his seat and called Rev. Clarence Nelson, President of the St. Paul NAACP, to tell him of the situation. Nelson then called Compton, and both men went to the hotel to sit with Rustin. By the time midnight rolled around there were more than a half dozen people who had joined Rustin in the lobby. At 7 am the Hamline University dean, Dr. M. A. Merrill then arrived and unable to resolve the situation, agreed to remain with the others.
The situation was resolved when Rustin, who had left the hotel for a speaking engagement while the others remained in the lobby, returned to find that he had been assigned a “very nice room.” A headline in the St. Paul Recorder for 1/24/1947 reads: “New sit-down and wait technique wins; Hotel gives Rustin room.” An article in the same issue covers Rustin’s speeches regarding the non-violent approach to overcoming racial and religious discrimination. Rustin returned to the Twin Cities in 1949 and again in 1952.
Rustin frequently toured the country on behalf of CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) to give speeches about the philosophy and practice of non-violent action within the Civil Rights movement. As a gay, Black activist, he was frequently asked to remain out of the public eye due to perceived animus regarding his unapologetic homosexuality. But his value, skills, knowledge, and successes as an organizer encouraged other prominent African American leaders to bring him back to work with them often.
Rustin is called “the man behind the dream” for his work in organizing, with Dr. Martin Luther King, the 1963 March on Washington.
The building that housed the Hamline Hotel still stands, very little altered, and houses a Wilder Foundation program.