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Eva Bell Neal used to laugh about growing up black in St. Paul.

“There were so few,” she said in 1971, “that you’d go downtown, and if you met one colored person, you thought, ‘Well, mercy me, where’d they come from?’ ”

After all, Minnesota’s entire black population stood at one-third of 1 percent in 1890, when Eva was a toddler. Today, St. Paul is home to nearly 50,000 blacks (16%) — including Mayor Melvin Carter.

The oldest daughter of a prominent barber, Eva was born in 1888 near Western and Selby avenues. She was the first child of Andrew and Amanda Bell, who’d moved up from Hannibal, Mo., a few years earlier. And she’s believed to be the first black child born in the Selby-Western area near where the Cathedral of St. Paul would rise 27 years later.

“I was the first … I have that distinction,” she told historian David Taylor in an oral history in 1971 — a year before her death at 83. “I feel quite proud of that.”

Her father opened his barber shop on the ground floor of a massive reddish stone building, still standing, at Selby and Western — known over the years as Blair Flats and the Albion and Angus hotels. Gov. John Albert Johnson, the state’s first governor born in Minnesota, was among Andrew Bell’s customers when he was elected in 1904.

The 1900 census lists Eva at 11, right between her parents and younger siblings, Earl and Albreta. But her oral history, recorded seven decades later, fleshes out the government records. Her taped interview was part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Black History Project in the 1970s and is available online at https://tinyurl.com/EvaBellNeal.

In it, she recalls how her father was an exacting, churchgoing man who owned a wagon and large boiler. He’d haul the towels and gowns from the barber shop to the family home at 471 Central Av. on weekends.

Then he’d light a large fire beneath the boiler as the family helped wash, disinfect and dry everything on five lines strung in the kitchen.

“They boiled all night long, so that by morning they were ready,” Neal said. “He trained us to get up early. He would call at six o’clock in the morning and we had to dress and be downstairs in 18 minutes. Our hair would be brushed back, our teeth washed, and ready to start.”

Her father died in 1906 and her mother moved to Rondo Avenue — the heart of St. Paul’s black community until freeway construction forever divided the area in the 1950s and ’60s. Eva married Thomas Neal, a Tennessee-born auto mechanic and barber. She worked as a seamstress and dressmaker, stitching alterations at a downtown department store and operating clothing machinery. They had two children, Andrew and Albreta.

Her long life took on almost a Forrest Gump-like quality as Eva Neal met everyone from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to black education pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune and even Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie during a 1954 visit to Minnesota.

When Roosevelt stopped by the St. Paul Auditorium in the 1940s, Neal encouraged women to donate roses so she could present her with a large bouquet.

“I was so frightened when I started up those steps,” she said. “But her eyes met mine. … I presented her with the flowers, and lost all fear that I had had because of her acknowledging me in such a lovely manner.”

Bethune, a daughter of slaves, created a college for black women in Florida that merged into Bethune-Cookman College. On her visits to St. Paul, Neal would take her to buy shoes — and raise funds for her educational efforts.

“Mrs. Bethune started right here in St. Paul. … She went from door to door on Summit Avenue,” said Neal, recalling how one resident on the palatial avenue, whose name she couldn’t recall, invited Bethune into her home and made the first contribution to the school. “She come up and made herself known to her. … She made a friend. Her personality was just wonderful.”

When Selassie visited, Neal recruited a dozen kids — black and white — to present him with a scroll from the St. James African Methodist Church’s Sunday school.

“They were all different colors. … They were just like a rainbow, or a garden of flowers,” she said. “And they were all so pleased. So tickled to greet him. And he looked down at them with delight.”

The news media ignored the moment, though, irking Neal and leaving her “disappointed” and “very hurt.”

Spending her 83 years in St. Paul, as a member of a minority group, wasn’t always rose bouquets and generous contributions to black colleges in Florida.

“There was prejudice of course, existing at that time,” she said in 1971. “And many things and many jobs weren’t open for them because of them being black. I’m sorry to say that it still exists. And I wonder when it will end. It will not be in my time. I’m hoping it will be in my grandchildren’s time, although they’ve got a hard road ahead, too.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.

Diversity pioneer

Who: Eva Bell Neal, a seamstress and dressmaker, is believed to be the first African-American child born in the area near Selby and Western avenues in St. Paul.

Born: Sept. 19, 1888.

Died: July 11, 1972, buried at St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery.

Oral history: In 1971, she recorded an oral history which is online at https://tinyurl.com/EvaBellNeal.

Quote: “There was prejudice of course … I’m sorry to say that it still exists. And I wonder when it will end. It will not be in my time. I’m hoping it will be in my grandchildren’s time, although they’ve got a hard road ahead, too.”