Less than a mile from the State Capitol, St. Paul's Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place for six Minnesota governors such as Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley, 3M pioneer Lucius Ordway, philanthropist Amherst Wilder, pioneer schoolteacher Harriet Bishop and assorted Civil War heroes.
There's a lesser-known man buried at Oakland who, like those storied figures, also touched countless lives: William O'Shields, the pride of Rochester and St. Paul.
A shoemaker's son, O'Shields was born 125 years ago this fall. The lone Black football player at Rochester High School in 1917, he played fullback and helped his school win the state championship that year against St. Cloud.
After running track and graduating from the University in Minnesota in 1932, O'Shields created the first recreational sports program at the Hallie Q. Brown Settlement House, a still-thriving community center that started in Depression-era St. Paul for Black residents denied services from other agencies.
O'Shields went on to coach track, cross country, golf, football and basketball and run athletic programs at several HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges and Universities — including the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Fort Valley State College in Georgia and Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania, where the football stadium was named for him in 2005.
In 1969, U of M President Malcolm Moos presented him with the Alumni Association's Outstanding Achievement Award. "It gives me great pride," O'Shields said. "To be honored by your school is a wonderful thing."
Despite those tributes, O'Shields "has been seemingly forgotten in his hometown," according to a profile published last month in the Rochester Post-Bulletin's monthly magazine.
The oldest of three children, O'Shields was born in 1898 in Arkansas; the 1910 census shows his family living in Batesville, Ark. By 1917 the family had moved to Minnesota, where O'Shields was called "Rochester's colored fullback" in a Minneapolis Tribune story reporting on his pivotal 5-yard run in that 14-0 state championship victory.
"How the family came to Minnesota remains one of our unanswered questions," said William's granddaughter Kimberly O'Shields, who was 14 when he died in 1981.
Historian Virginia Wright-Peterson told the Post-Bulletin about Klu Klux Klan activity in 1920s Rochester, where the O'Shields family — among the city's few Black residents — lived along the railroad tracks. It might have made life "uncomfortable and even threatening" for them, she said.
"My grandfather was a polished, prideful man with a deliberate, thoughtful aura about him," Kimberly said in a telephone interview. "He was a real Renaissance man considering the times he was living through."
At some point the O'Shields family moved to the Twin Cities. Census records in 1920 show William, then 21, living on Carroll Avenue in St. Paul's old Rondo neighborhood. His mother, Easter O'Shields, lived on Dale Street in 1930 and Rondo Avenue in 1940.
O'Shields left the U after three years to earn enough money to pay for his schooling, but returned in 1930 and graduated two years later with a degree in physical education. After a stint with the American Red Cross in 1943 as assistant to the director of Operations for Colored Personnel in the South Pacific, he received his master's degree from the U in 1946.
But sports were O'Shield's true passion. He viewed them as a portal through which Black youth could improve their lives, whether in the Rondo neighborhood or as student athletes at Tuskegee or Cheyney.
"After his track and athletic accomplishments, he really believed that student athletes could use sports as a tool to open doors to higher education and a greater role in society," Kimberly O'Shields said.
Growing up in Gary, Ind., Kimberly would get postcards and typed letters from her grandfather. He gave Kimberly and her brother miniature golf clubs and tennis rackets, along with lessons on how to use them.
"As a grandfather, he was very present with us and taught us the sky was the limit as far as what we could do," she said.
Today Kimberly carries on her grandfather's educational legacy in Washington, D.C., where she runs Continuum Solutions, a consulting group she founded that's aimed at improving health and wellness at colleges and corporations.
She works largely with HBCUs — including Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, where William was hired in 1947 as a teacher, coach and athletic director. He retired from Cheyney in 1969 and died there 12 years later at 82.
Returning to the Minnesota of his youth was among his final wishes before he died. And so O'Shields was buried at Oakland Cemetery, near all those governors and Minnesota icons.
"I have pioneered advances," he said later in life, "which I don't feel would have been accomplished without patience."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.