Updates, history, and content from neighbors in and around the Wedge
(1937 to 2008)
Lowry Hill East Resident 1982 to 2008
By Kathy Kullberg
Minnesota Senator (DFL) Allan Spear was a long-time resident of the Wedge, buying the home at 2429 Bryant Avenue South in 1982 and serving actively in the community until his unexpected death in 2008. His partner, Junjiro Tsuji, remained at the home until it was sold in 2013. Friends of Allan Spear and Mueller Park erected the brick and wood pergola in honor of the achievements that he had accomplished in his lauded career both at the University of Minnesota and in the Minnesota Senate.
Massachusetts U.S. representative Barney Frank, called Allan Spear “a man of enormous courage and a fierce passion for justice, who at the same time was a model of civility and decency in his personal relations . . . for me Allan was both a hero and a role model.” Spear was not only the first openly gay state senator in Minnesota, he was also the first in the nation. He fought long and hard for equality across a broad spectrum of major issues. Barney Frank was honored to write the forward for Spear’s autobiography Crossing the Barriers, published in 2010.
Though he is more known now for his LGBTQ rights activism, it is little known now that Spear championed first and foremost for racial equality. From the earliest days of his youth in Michigan City, Indiana, he supported and worked for equal rights for voting, employment opportunities, education, and pay for African Americans. This became an enigma for his Jewish parents and small mostly white Michigan community. Long after he went off to college, he continued his support, teaching, and activism, fighting for racial justice for his friends, colleagues, and people of color.
Spear’s education after high school graduation in Michigan City continued for one year at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He then transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio, where his more liberal ideals could be taken seriously. But when an African American friend from Northwestern invited him to spend the summer in Mississippi in the heart of the Jim Crow Deep South of the 1950s, there was a rude awakening. When Emmett Till was brutally slaughtered during his visit in 1955, Allan subsequently was prompted to take a semester at Fisk University, an all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee, to learn firsthand about black oppression.
After graduating from Oberlin, Spear attended Harvard Law School for one year, but determined that corporate law was not for him. He applied to Yale and was accepted into the graduate program as a history major, where he decided to focus and teach African American history. His research and activism led him anew into the civil rights struggles beyond the classroom. He began picketing and participating in sit-ins at local retailers that insisted on separate entrances, sections, and bathrooms for whites and blacks. His PhD dissertation focused on the history of blacks in Chicago between the Civil War and the 1920s.
The outlook was not good for tenure at Yale, and in 1964, Spear was hired at the University of Minnesota hoping to create a department of African American Studies. In those early days, he would also become well acquainted with politics and Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.
During the middle years of the 1960s, Spear continued his fierce activism for racial equality, supporting the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP. At the same time, the United States was becoming more embroiled in the Vietnam War. This brought a whole new level of activism to end the war from Spear and the University student body. Spear staunchly was opposed to U.S. involvement in the war and participated in college “teach-ins”—“marathon session[s] of lectures and seminars designed to raise awareness of the war issue among college students.” He voted to support candidates opposed to the war and advocated against politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, who kept America overseas. He supported the draft “dodgers” who moved to Canada and openly urged support for Eugene McCarthy against Hubert Humphrey.
He received his PhD in 1965 from Yale. That fall he began to teach seminars on the history of “The Negro in American History,” one of the first such courses taught in a Big Ten school. In August, 1967, his Yale dissertation became the book, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890-1920, which was published by the University of Chicago Press, coming out at the time when bloody and violent rioting was breaking out in the northern states. Spear appeared on radio and television talk shows all over the nation, reinforcing the urgent need for this country to focus on changes to racial inequality.
At the same time, Spear himself began to actively dabble in politics. In his youth, he clearly sided with Democratic party beliefs and goals. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Spear focused on making political changes rather than advocating for sit-ins, marches, and riots as the means to achieve racial equality. As a junior professor at the University of Minnesota, Spear supported various DFL candidates in their run for office in his campus district who were opposed to the war, as well as campaigning and caucusing for Eugene McCarthy for president.
Spear made the decision to help make those changes with a run for the Minnesota House of Representatives, but lost in 1968. In 1972, he ran a more targeted campaign in the senatorial race and won the right to represent his campus district for the Democrats against a long-term Republican incumbent. Spear served as a Minnesota Senator from 1972 until he retired in 2000, while maintaining his associate professorship at the University. He lobbied at the Minnesota legislature for clean air and water, tenants’ rights, rapid transit, reduced tuition at the university, protections for university employees, and human basic rights, to “end all forms of discrimination based on race, circumstance, or life style.”
Between 1973 and 1974, Spear, who was known as a champion for gay and lesbian rights, had not yet dealt with his own sexuality. It took until December of 1974 for him to come to terms and accept the reality for himself and to be open and honest with his constituents. An article in the Minneapolis Star newspaper written by a friend, Deborah Howell, made the announcement that “Allan Spear is also a homosexual. And, as of today, he doesn’t care who knows it.”
Despite his many achievements, the hardest-won fight to end discrimination against the LGBTQ community took another 19 years to pass in Minnesota. The 1993 Minnesota Human Rights Act was the first in the country to include transgender people. By this time, Allan had become president of the Senate and would serve as such until his retirement in 2000.
Throughout his terms in the Minnesota Senate, Spear was the champion of the underdog, the ignored, and the underserved. His passion and bipartisanship won rights on several fronts, including gay rights, abortion rights, gun control, hearing and vision loss discrimination, and HIV discrimination. He railed against Minnesota businesses doing work in South Africa, putting pressure against the apartheid system. Long-time friend, Kathy O’Brien recalled that “a recurring theme in his life had been about being on the outside politically, working to make change, and finding a way to get inside to make a difference.”
His achievements also included receiving the first Paul and Sheila Wellstone Lifetime Leadership Award from the Minnesota AIDS Project. And in 2008, the Minnesota Historical Society named Allan Spear one of the 150 people that shaped Minnesota.
Allan Spear died on October 11, 2008, after complications from open heart surgery on the 9th of October. On October 14, then Senator Barack Obama, wrote to Jun, Allan’s partner of 26 years: “I join with all Minnesotans who mourn the loss of Allan Spear. His evenhandedness, command of the issues, and ability to reach across the aisle and work with colleagues of both parties were legendary and should inspire us all. He was a man of great courage who served as one of the nation’s first openly gay legislators.”
 Crossing the Barriers, An Autobiography of Allan H. Spear, University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Forward by Barney Frank, page IX.
 Crossing the Barriers, The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear, Allan Spear, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010, page 118.
 Ibid, page 253.
 Minneapolis Star, December 9, 1974, “State Sen. Allan Spear Declares He’s Homosexual.”
 Crossing the Barriers, page 434.