Virginia Clardy and family broke the race barrier in Burnsville

Virginia Clardy, a pioneering African-American resident of Burnsville, was also a nurse, a political activist and a die-hard Minnesota Vikings fan. She is pictured with Winston, the oldest of her six children. (Submitted photo)

Matriarch dies at age 95

James and Virginia Clardy found their dream home in 1956, on 2.5 acres at 1116 Circle High Drive in rural Burnsville Township.

Trouble followed immediately. The Clardys had their driveway blocked repeatedly with dirt and debris. They heard neighbors threaten to burn their house. One night there were guns, said Cathy Clardy Patterson, one of the couple’s six children.

Despite the indignities that came with being Burnsville’s first African-American family, James and Virginia never regretted it, Clardy Patterson said.

“My parents grew up in an era where the central belief was that the reason for prejudice and racial animus was just a lack of exposure,” she said. “They were part of a movement throughout the nation of integrationists, which basically said that if we integrated neighborhoods, people will then learn that we’re all the same.

“And although they moved here for better schools, that was only part of the reason they moved here, because they believed they had a civic obligation to be part of that movement. They thought that it was a step to make this a more perfect union.”

Virginia lived in the house until last November, when she went to Scottsdale, Ariz., to be with Cathy. Virginia died July 20 in Scottsdale at age 95.

She was a nurse, a state health official, a political activist, a world traveler and a mother of six college graduates, some with advanced degrees.

Mourners at Virginia’s funeral in St. Paul Aug. 9 included fellow co-founders of Grace United Methodist Church in Burnsville, which opened in 1962.

“She was just so lively,” Clardy Patterson said. “But even more important than that, Mother was a gift to anybody whose life she walked into. It didn’t matter what your station in life was. It didn’t matter what your age was. Mother engaged you wherever you were.”

Born Virginia Mae Price on Dec. 16, 1917, she was raised in Kansas City, Mo., where she graduated from high school with honors and was elected homecoming queen.

She became a registered nurse in 1940 and worked with a program fighting communicable diseases that took her to Arkansas, Staten Island and Detroit. After returning to Kansas City to work as a public health nurse, Virginia came to the University of Minnesota for further studies.

She married James Clardy of Minneapolis, who made a career as director of administrative services for the Minneapolis post office.

As the couple had children, they sought to leave Minneapolis for better schools, Clardy Patterson said. They’d narrowed their choice to Edina or Burnsville. Burnsville was the sentimental favorite because of her father’s boyhood memories of hunting deer in the area, she said.

The Clardys bought their brand-new home from the chief carpenter of the neighborhood developer, who suddenly decided to sell, Clardy Patterson said.

The developer himself didn’t seem likely to sell to a black couple.

He was “actually the ringleader for trying to keep us out of the neighborhood,” Clardy Patterson said, adding that their lender threw up another barrier by requiring an outlandish 45 percent down payment.

A group of neighbors, led by the developer, had the house condemned for sitting below the surface of the road, Clardy Patterson said. Her parents got the condemnation order lifted.

Then the developer had a bulldozer come by every day to block the driveway with dirt and debris. The Clardys obtained a cease-and-desist order.

“So then our neighbors threatened to burn down our house,” said Clardy Patterson, 56. “There were verbal threats. And then one night they came over with guns.”

James, an Army veteran, had his own gun — a Luger pistol, a World War II keepsake, which he fired into the air.

“He said, ‘I fought to defend this country. I’m going to fight to take care of my family,’ ” said Mary Frances Clardy, 54, one of the couple’s three daughters.

Racial incidents, verbal and physical, followed the children to school. They attended Lakeville schools — Orchard Lake Elementary and the then-combined junior and senior high.

“My parents always had a rule that if one of us gets attacked, the rest of us had better not come home unless we stood up for the other one,” Clardy Patterson said.

Virginia challenged the school district over “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” an 1899 children’s book later criticized for racial slurs and symbols. Her request that the book be removed from school bookshelves was denied.

“Her view wasn’t that you necessarily won every case, but that you stood up,” Clardy Patterson said.

The Clardys also encountered people of good will in the community and saw attitudes change, she said.

“It wasn’t a story of uniform hostility,” Clardy Patterson said. “It was a story of a family that first of all cared about the future of their children, but also wanted to make a difference in the community by setting forth positive role models.”

Virginia and James were kind but demanding parents who forbade TV on weeknights, assigned many chores and valued brain work.

“She was really big into a lot of structured events for us at home,” Mary Frances said of her mother. “We had to do weekly reports as a family. Each kid had to do a weekly report on a current event.”

Clardy Patterson got her fill of “Texaco presents Metropolitan Opera” broadcasts on public radio.

“We had to listen to that every Saturday, and then she gave us a test afterwards,” she said. “I swore when I grew up and could afford a car, I would never buy Texaco gas.”

Virginia, who stayed home to raise the family, returned to nursing after Mary Frances entered school. She worked as an orthopedic nurse at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.

She was then hired as then-Gov. Wendell Anderson’s advisor on drug and alcohol abuse. Virginia finished her career as the nursing consultant to Minnesota’s state hospitals.

“My mother was very politically active,” a trait she encouraged in her children, Clardy Patterson said. “She held a number of positions in the DFL Party. She worked on a number of races. In fact, Hubert Humphrey (the late senator and vice president) dubbed her the ‘Queen Bee of Burnsville’ because he said she could organize anything.”

Virginia, whose husband died in 1999, loved gardening, canning and healthy eating. She taught Red Cross swim lessons in Lakeville and was the first president of the Lakeville Lioness Club.

She was a die-hard Vikings fan who once dyed her hair purple. She traveled late into her life, visiting Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece in her 93rd year.

“You didn’t see a lot of wrinkles,” said Mary Frances, who now occupies the home at 1116 Circle High Drive.

Virginia was preceded in death by her parents, Mattie Frances Price Smith and James Price; brother, James Russell Price Sr.; and husband, James E. Clardy Sr.

She is survived by her sons, Winston Clardy of Huntsville, Ala., James Clardy Jr. of Minneapolis and David (Victoria) Clardy of Minneapolis; daughters, Rebecca Clardy of Minneapolis, Cathy Clardy Patterson (Ross) of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Mary Frances Clardy of Burnsville; grandsons, Bryan and Nathaniel; granddaughters, Khadijah, Virginia, Amatullah and Davina; and many relatives and friends.