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“How in the world did I survive?” Melvin Carter Jr. asks, sitting at a table in the back room at Amore Coffee. He’s speaking to small group gathered to hear about his autobiography, Diesel Heart, recently published by the Minnesota Historical Society.
“I survived to tell the story,” Carter says. “Everyone has a great story.“
Story is perhaps the central thread in Carter’s journey. He’s a son of Rondo, the historic black neighborhood in St. Paul that was gutted by the construction of I-94. He joined the Navy, boxed in Morocco, and went from stints in jail to joining the police, becoming one of the few black officers in St. Paul after courts ordered the force to integrate. His son is also Melvin Carter III, mayor of St. Paul.
His story opens with a family reunion in Texas in 1954 where he encounters his great-great grandmother, who was born a slave. He speaks of his uncle who bought property in the Rondo Neighborhood trying to build wealth, only to have the area declared a “Negro slum.” He’d go on to face racism and prejudice as he tried to join the St. Paul Police Department and prove himself.
“This disconnect is the connect itself,” Carter says. “It’s about trying to be a human being in a world that does not recognize my humanity.”
The gathering at Amore lasted more than an hour as Carter jumped from one story to the next.
“I got decorated for some courage I was able to fake,” Carter says of his time on the police force.
Ultimately Carter’s autobiography is about heart. The title refers to something a Navy doctor said, that his “heart is a diesel engine in a Mustang body.”
His heart is deep and powerful, beating in this tiny, sleek body.
“I have to tell you my truth,” Carter says. “If I don’t tell you my truth, I’m a fraud.”
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