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American Heroes with Minnesota Ties

February is Black History Month, but honoring the individuals who have left a legacy of achievement, service, and inspiration can—and should—take place year-round. Let's end the month by remembering two very remarkable individuals, Roy Wilkins and Clarence Wesley Wigington.

Roy Wilkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri and following his mother's death in 1901, he and his siblings were raised by an aunt and uncle in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Wilkins earned a degree in sociology in 1923. An articulate speaker and skilled writer, he began his career as a journalist at our very own Minnesota Daily! Wilkins was hired as an editor at The Appeal, an African-American newspaper founded in St. Paul, and eventually moved to Kansas City as the editor of The Call.

Wilkins primary legacy is his role as a civil rights activist and leader—testifying before Congress and conferring with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. In 1955, Roy Wilkins was chosen to be the executive secretary of the NAACP and in 1964 he became its executive director. During his tenure, the NAACP played a pivotal role in leading the nation into the Civil Rights movement and spearheaded the efforts that led to significant civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Wilkins the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1968, he served as chair of the U.S. delegation to the International Conference on Human Rights.

Roy Wilkins meeting with President Lyndon Johnson

The St. Paul Auditorium, built by Clarence Wesley Wigington, was renamed in honor of Roy Wilkins in 1985 and provides a perfect segue way to introduce an architect you may not know by name.

Clarence Wesley Wigington was born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1883. After graduating from Omaha High School at the age of 15, Wigington left an Omaha art school to work for Thomas R. Kimball, president of the American Institute of Architects. After six years he opened his own architectural office.

Wigington earned a national reputation when he moved to St. Paul in 1914. By 1917 he became the nation's first black municipal architect, serving as the senior architectural designer for the City of St. Paul for 34 years. During the 1920s and 1930s, Wigington designed most of our Saint Paul Public Schools buildings! He also designed golf clubhouses, fire stations, park buildings, and airports for the city.

Iconic and notable Wigington structures include the Highland Park Tower, the Holman Field Administration Building and the Harriet Island Pavilion, all now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Fleeting but memorable, many of the ice castles created for the St. Paul Winter Carnival in the 1930s and '40s were also Wigington designs!

The iconic Highland Park Water Tower, designed by Clarence Wesley Wigington

Almost sixty of his buildings still stand in St. Paul: the Highland Park Clubhouse, Cleveland High School, Randolph Heights Elementary School, the downtown St. Paul Police Station, and the Palm House and the Zoological Building at the Como Park Zoo.