The Twin Cities have lost one of its most esteemed and charismatic champions.
Archie Givens Jr., a philanthropist, humanitarian and businessman and the scion of Minnesota's first Black millionaire family, died Wednesday in Minneapolis. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years.
"Archie was a Minnesota treasure," U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips said. "One of the most compassionate, kind and influential men in my life. His love of our community was exceeded only by the humility, grace and passion with which he improved it."
Givens, 78, was president of Legacy Management & Development Corp., which in the early 2000s teamed up with McCormack Baron Salazar to build 900 homes on a 123-acre site on Minneapolis' North Side. That project, the Heritage Park development, converted public housing into a thriving community. Givens' company also built the Rondo Community Library in St. Paul and senior housing projects in Edina and elsewhere.
In addition to his success in business, Givens, like other members of his family, championed arts, culture and literacy by giving his time and treasure to theaters, libraries, history projects and a raft of other civic causes. He also served on boards, including for the University of Minnesota and Penumbra Theatre, and contributed generously.
"Archie is part of the broader Minnesota tradition of enlightened philanthropic support that sees both public policy and arts and culture as a central part of ensuring the health of our democracy," said retired University of Minnesota professor John Wright, who was a student with Givens at the U. "His family is in there with the Pillsburys and Daytons and others who really have been vital to the health and well-being of the state."
Givens' father, Archie Givens Sr., was a trailblazing businessman who with his wife, Phebe O'Shields Givens, built a successful real estate development business and became the state's first Black millionaire family. In the 1950s, they built "the nation's first federally supported commercial housing open to all races," according to a 2017 citation from the Minneapolis City Council designating those homes historic.
The Givens children, Archie and Roxanne, were raised with similar expectations and privileges.
"When they grew up here 70 years ago, Archie and his family were in the first wave of Black people who got along well with whites socially," said attorney and businessman Cornell Moore, who knew the father and was the son's lifelong friend and business partner. "He was comfortable hanging downtown or at the country club."
That social ease helped with business, and in all his dealings.
"He had a smile that melted a lot of hearts," Moore said. "Some people used to say the only difference between Billie Dee Williams and Archie was that Billy Dee lived in California. Archie was a real star."
Born April 30, 1944, in Minneapolis, Givens was a football standout at Minneapolis Central High School.
"Witnessing all his touchdowns and him being crowned homecoming king, all those things made me feel proud, and I was excited that he was my brother," Roxanne Givens said. "Archie was a spirit filled with love, kindness and humility. In my whole life I never heard him say a cross word about anyone. Ever."
He attended the U on a football scholarship, playing cornerback from 1963 to 1966. That he would become known throughout his life for his gentleness and kindness seemed at odds with a cornerback whose job it was to charge at opponents and lay them out.
"He was very good at it," Moore said. But Givens lost his scholarship because he went to Hawaii during a time when the team was supposed to be training.
"The coach said if you're vacationing in Hawaii during the time you're supposed to be practicing, you clearly didn't need a scholarship," Moore said, laughing. Givens laughed it off as well.
Still, he became devoted to the U and later served as president of its Alumni Association. He and his family also put up money to build the Givens Collection of African American Literature, whose 10,000 books, artifacts and ephemera is prized because of its depth in the Harlem Renaissance. Millions of Americans saw a tour of an exhibit called "A Stronger Soul Within a Finer Frame: Portraying Afro-Americans in the Black Renaissance," which was pulled from the Givens Collection.
Givens' grandson, Skyler Harvey, visited him Tuesday, a day before he died. Son-in-law Connie Harvey, Skyler's father, also visited Tuesday. He recalled that when his son was small, the family would go sledding, and afterwards, Givens would fire up the barbecue.
"This was all in the winter, and he would make the most delicious ribs," Connie Harvey said. "He put in the time, his exceeding kindness and his generous spirit in that food."
For decades, Givens and his wife, Carol Meshbesher, opened their homes for literary events and artistic salons that drew hundreds of people from all different strata of the Twin Cities. Those events included readings by Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove and other high-wattage literary stars.
"Archie and I loved bringing all these different, disparate people together," Meshbesher said. "We were a team that way, welcoming everybody into our home."
Givens was first married to Jeanne Collins, of St. Paul. That union produced two daughters — April and Sunny. April died in 2004. Givens' parents also died before him.
In addition to his daughter Sunny, of Oakland, he is survived by Meshbesher, of Minneapolis, Roxanne Givens of Plymouth, and Connie and Skyler Harvey, of Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., respectively.
Services are being planned.
"Archie was a strong supporter of how history impacts us, and wanted us to have as much knowledge as possible as we go about making decisions and living our lives," said arts champion and philanthropist Phyllis Rawls Goff, who served with Givens on boards. "He supported things that enriched and strengthened the fabric of our culture."