More than 100 years ago, the Fargo City Hall building had yet to exist. Just west of the Red River was a place called The Hollow, a poor section of the city where immigrants and laborers lived. The Hollow is also where houses of ill repute set up shop, including one called The Crystal Palace, an opulent brothel run by an African American woman named Melvina Massey.
Melvina’s story has fascinated her family and local history buffs because hers was a tale of unparalleled success—both for a woman and a woman of a minority race. Hers is a story of conjecture and speculation, with only a smattering of historical record to provide concrete evidence. Yet one small piece of the puzzle may have been uncovered last month.
That’s when Terry Stroh, the architect on the new Fargo City Hall project, worked with his team of excavators and Drs. Angela Smith and Kristen Fellows from NDSU to unearth part of the century-old foundation of the Crystal Palace.
Smith and Fellows originally worked with the city’s Historical Preservation Commission throughout the summer to ascertain whether a dig was even feasible. Smith said several city employees, including the mayor, were supportive of the request, but timing was fluid with the construction schedule. But when they got the call, they were ready.
Using geo-referencing technology, the team laid an old Sanborn insurance map depicting the Crystal Palace’s location over the City Hall parking lot to determine a precise location. Turns out, the location the professors wanted to dig would be right below the podium that had been set up for the Aug. 22 groundbreaking ceremony. Two days later, Smith and Fellows donned hard hats and watched as excavators unearthed several bucketsful of history.
“The guys running the excavators were really interested in what we were doing,” Smith said. She even picked up a few bricks from the Palace’s foundation to send to Brandon Massey, one of Melvina’s descendants who has been doing copious research on his infamous ancestor.
While the dig isn’t controlled—which requires soil and any artifacts to be removed layer by layer to determine specific dating—the materials and items extracted will be studied by Fellows and her students. While she can’t be sure, Smith said her instincts tell her the glass bottles discovered in the rubble date from the 1920s or 1930s. And they may not be associated with the Crystal Palace at all. But Fellows and her team will do what they can do figure that out.
Melvina’s story has sparked other projects as well. Smith is writing a chapter for a book about historical sex work, and she uses Melvina’s story to illuminate the realities of a former-slave-turned-businesswoman, and how entering the sex trade business isn’t really that big of a leap for someone who previously had no ownership over her own body.
Additionally, Smith secured a grant that enabled her and a group of her history students to map houses of prostitution in Valley City and Jamestown using GIS technology to determine if any patterns exist in how the brothels came to be in various cities. Smith said she’d like to create a map for the entire state if possible.
A friend of the Massey family also took Melvina’s story and wrote an historical fiction novel called “The Color of Power: How a Mulatto Madame Controlled Fargo North Dakota.”
Featured image courtesy of Angela Smith.