Diesel Heart: An Autobiography
Author: Melvin Whitfield Carter, Jr.
St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2019
256 pages; soft cover; 27 b&w photos; $17.95
Reviewed by Mary Lethert Wingerd
Melvin Carter and I both grew up in Saint Paul in the 1950s and ’60s. But Carter’s hometown was a world away from mine. We both played on tree-lined streets where a community of neighbors kept its collective eye on our safety. But while I can revisit most of my childhood haunts even today, Carter and his pals experienced the trauma of seeing monstrous earthmovers devour their neighborhood and fracture their community in multiple ways. While my friends and I felt free to wander wherever we liked (once out of parental sight), University Avenue marked a color line that Carter and his friends crossed only on a dare. While my only encounter with death was the passing of my grandfather when I was twelve years old, Carter had to deal with the senseless death or incarceration of friends and family members whose lives were just beginning.
The destruction of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood was a tragedy, but even in its heyday, race defined its limits. Beyond its borders, the world was a dangerous place for African Americans, and opportunities were slim. As a young man, Carter seethed with anger that he channeled into becoming a champion boxer. Nonetheless, persistent racism beleaguered him in the Navy and even in his career as a Saint Paul police officer.
But this is not a story of victimhood, rather a life full of joy, struggle, and ultimate triumph over daunting obstacles. Carter manages to relate even the darkest moments with the liveliness and candor of a natural storyteller. Not a moment of stuffiness here! And some of the anecdotes are purely hilarious. Taken as a whole, however, it is a chronicle of a life well lived. He gives much of the credit for his success to his remarkable wife, Toni, who serves the community as a Ramsey County Commissioner and is his stalwart life partner. Today, retired from the police force, Carter gives much of his time to Save Our Sons, the organization he founded in the 1990s to provide guidance to young, at-risk African-American men.
By the 1980s and ’90s, many white Saint Paulites were inclined to think that our city was “different” and more progressive because we didn’t see overt protests and, after all, the Saint Paul Chief of Police was African American. Diesel Heart reveals how misleading superficial appearances can be. And how different the landscape looks, depending on where one is standing.
Most Saint Paulites may be familiar with the misbegotten destruction of the Rondo neighborhood and its loss to the city’s African-American community, but in Diesel Heart, Melvin Carter brings that community to life in vivid detail that has for too long been missing from St. Paul’s collective memory. It is truly a treasure.
Mary Lethert Wingerd is an emerita professor of history at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She is the author of North Country: The Making of Minnesota and Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul. She also is a member of the Ramsey County Historical Society editorial board and a contributing writer to Ramsey County History.