Hand in Hand Productions

An Interview with David Vassar Taylor

David Vassar Taylor, present day

Excerpt from: Voices of Rondo: Oral Histories of Saint Paul’s Historic Black Community

Syren Books, September 2005

I am David Vassar Taylor [1]. While growing up in Saint Paul my family lived on several streets, including at 1016 Rondo. I grew up in a large extended family in a supportive community. Although we all have different last names, the family name in the matriarchal sense is Vassar, and so anytime you talked about Black families in Saint Paul, it was the Vassar family and the Vassar sisters. Seven of them, and you could do no wrong if you were part of the Vassar family. You couldn’t hide from that because everyone knew who the Vassar sisters were.

Carroll Minges Vassar, my grandfather’s uncle, moved to Saint Paul in 1888. He and his wife had sixteen children. My grandfather, Joe Vassar, moved his family to Saint Paul in 1920.

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I had more uncles and aunts and cousins, and we relate to one another today in that vein. They are usually close, very close friends of the family for which there was no real term, because they were family, but they weren’t blood, so we just knew them as uncle, cousin. The mother of one of my very good friends, even to this day, is a surrogate mother for me and we talk. It just grew out of childhood and when I couldn’t talk to my mother, she would talk to me.

The Weekly Trumpet, a newspaper David created as a youngster
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I was a newspaper editor by the time I was thirteen. We had a newspaper that came out once a week and that was usually on Friday. At the end of the school day we would leave school, go home, check in, and then go over to our other friend’s house who had an attic that was semi-finished. We had typewriters and carbon paper and onionskin paper and we had block prints, and so we would act as reporters.

Monday through Wednesday we would go out and gather the news, Thursday and Friday we would type it up, and by Friday evening, early Saturday, we had seventy-five copies and went around to the people that had subscriptions and then sold what was left. We sold advertisements, for a quarter. We had a lot of businesses along University Avenue.

We had friends and we would pool our chemistry sets together and we would create chemicals. When rocketry became a fad, we researched that and created propellants. We could have done violence to ourselves, but only had one rocket blow up on us. We were always experimenting with electricity and, you know, finding ways to—oh, it was just—I mean, circuses! Bored in the summertime, wanting to raise money, we would have a backyard circus with puppetry and all sorts of things that kids could get into. But that was just a creative outlet for us. When everything else failed, there was reading.

We had the first Black or predominantly Black Cub Scout pack, and that was because we couldn’t get into any of the White Cub Scout groups. Then there was a need to graduate us to something else, so we formed the first Black Boy Scout troop. It became a point of contention when we got to big gatherings. We would be the only Black troop and there weren’t any Black kids in any of the White troops, although we did have White kids in the Black troop. They couldn’t understand what the big deal was when these other White guys would call them out of character for their affiliation with us.

Mr. Martin’s Barbershop, that’s where I came into contact with the lives of adult males and I would listen to their conversations and pick up a lot with respect to culture. Of course, when we were there, Mr. Martin wouldn’t let them talk in profane ways or get into subject matters that we shouldn’t be listening to. They knew that our mothers wouldn’t appreciate it. It was a socialization sort of thing. The barbershop was where you needed to go and hear these conversations.

The schools, community center, religious institutions, churches, church school, youth, what have you, playgrounds, all that we ever needed, including a Dairy Queen, was within walking distance. As we got older, we began to chafe under such close proximity to one another and not having enough territory to stretch your wings, so we became more ambitious.

Truthfully, you could not go anywhere without being under the watchful eye of some adult or some caring adult who knew who you were and your family connections. That was tough. Because as a young man who wanted to sow oats! No play whatsoever. By the time we were juniors in high school we were venturing out of the community, but at the same time we had to tell our parents where we were going and report back and that was without cell phones. You just had to stop what you were doing and get to the nearest phone and let them know where you were, because it simply wasn’t safe for us.

The conflict where it did arise along racial lines was Selby Avenue and because many of us attended Marshall Junior High, we had to cross Selby Avenue and in doing so, conflict erupted between Blacks and Whites. I can just remember fight after fight. The equivalent of gang fights, but they weren’t called gangs, just troubled youth, I guess. Marshall really became a melting pot. We just had differences in racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. By the time we shifted up to Central High School, all of those things had worked out and there was relative harmony.

If we were poor by sociological standards, didn’t know it. I didn’t know that I was poor and Black until I got to the University of Minnesota and sat in sociology class and read The American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal, and some of the others who theorized on race in America. I couldn’t believe that this was me that they were talking about because it didn’t seem to parallel my existence. I didn’t feel disenfranchised. I wasn’t educationally disenfranchised. I was as bright as any of the other kids I competed against. I came from a two-parent household, albeit my mother was married three times, but we still always had parents. We may not have had a lot of money, but we had what was necessary to do the things that they thought were necessary for us.

I always had role models around me. You know, I lived on Carroll Avenue. I had a district judge living across the street from me, I had lawyers living up the street. I had teachers living down the street. The church I went to was totally middle class for our circumstances, and they drove big cars. If I was poor in the middle of that, then truly, poverty was different.

We were always taught that we should be achieving educationally. And we were always exposed to better things, however you want to define that. Now there was a sporting class and there probably was a lower class. But we weren’t allowed to engage those folks and they did not attempt to engage us. Because, you know, they knew of our parents and knew to let us alone, no matter what they were involved in. It would have been a crisis to get these other kids engaged in those sorts of things.

It’s kind of interesting because again the Black Episcopal churches tend to attract, historically, very well educated people, very middle class people. I’m still a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church to this day. Truly I could look at people and see them doing great things, and they in turn, querying me about what my plans were. People who saw the man in the child and wanted that man to get out and blossom. The church is one of those places where people with honesty, fine intellect, and a keen sense of social justice worked to create in us that sense of fairness, rightness, dedication to cause, and working with other people for a better world.

David Taylor's High School graduation photoComing along in high school and junior high, I was in accelerated programs. I was one of the few Black children that were put into these advanced courses in math and science. In fact, I had Mrs. Ruby Moe, my junior year American history teacher, take me aside after class and tell me that I was one of the brightest students that she had taught in thirty-five years of teaching at Central High School and that I should go on and get a Ph.D. in history at the University. Well, I do have a Ph.D. in history, and I did get it from the University. Throughout my professional career I’ve had people who recognized that I was a fine teacher, but probably as fine or better administrator and encouraged me, and that’s why I ended up in administration.

I simply didn’t know poverty. I have come to know that there is impoverishment of spirit and poverty. We may not have had a lot, but we were not impoverished in spirit. I think that makes the difference.


[1] David Vassar Taylor was born in 1945 to Eula “Kitty” Vassar Taylor Washington Murphy and Clarence Taylor.


Dr. David Taylor is most proud of being able to assist young people in achieving their educational goals. In 1967, he earned a B.A. from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. in history from the University of Nebraska–Omaha in 1971, and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota in 1977. For 16 years, Dr. Taylor was dean of the General College at the University of Minnesota. In 2005, he became provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He has authored two books and contributed to several others, written numerous articles and book reviews, and written and lectured extensively on the migration and settlement of African Americans in Minnesota.

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