Minnesota and Black History Month

Civil War battalionSince this is the last week of Black History Month, it is appropriate to celebrate historical legal milestones of local black Minnesotans, such as Frederick McGhee, Stephen Maxwell, and Alan Page. But it is equally appropriate to look at some of our region’s less-celebratory milestones. It may surprise many to learn that Minnesota hasn’t always been on what we consider to be the “right side of history.”  It may surprise even more to learn that our local community often stood in the way of what we now consider progress.  Consider these examples:

• Minnesota had a prominent role in the Dred Scott case which ended with the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that the “black man had no rights that the white man is bound to respect.”  Scott had  been the slave of a military surgeon posted at Fort Snelling in the 1840s.  In this historical case, Scott had essentially argued that by virtue of his “master’s” death and of living for years in free states and territories, he become a free man.

That hundreds of Minnesotans died fighting on the Union side of the Civil War is well-known.   Less well-known is the fact that that in 1863, a Missouri steam ship docked at Lowertown carrying a load of escaped slaves. No welcome mat greeted them, but instead the travelers were confronted with a mob of angry white laborers demanding that they return to the South.*

• Minnesota may be free of confederate symbolism on its flag, but a popular lake in Minneapolis immortalizes a slave owner with its name. John Calhoun of South Carolina promoted slavery as a “positive good.” Calhoun is relevant to local history as the founder of Fort Snelling, where we know that military personnel were welcome to keep their slaves at hand.

• It’s easy to think that mob lynchings of black men are just a shameful stain on the history of southern states, and certainly not part of our fair state’s history. Yet on June 15, 1920, three black circus workers were hung in Duluth by a citizen group following allegations of their raping a white resident. The men had not yet been tried, and little evidence was available to back up these allegations.

The City of St. Paul is 15% African American, but had no black legislators until 2010. That was the year that voters elected John Harrington to the Minnesota Senate and Rena Moran to the House of Representatives.  Miinneapolis did better on this measure, by electing Frank Wheaton as the first African American legislator in the state of Minnesota in 1898.

When it comes to history, it is understandable that we might gravitate to the facts which paint our community in its most positive and flattering light.  But our history includes those not-so-positive events as well.  We cannot take lessons from our history unless we confront it entirely, and use it as the blueprint in planning our future.


*  This event and others are captured in Degrees of Freedom: The Origin of Civil Rights in Minnesota by Dr. William Green.  This, plus Dr. Green’s other book, A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in early Minnesota are both excellent resources for researching some of the more obscure details of Minnesota’s early history.


One Response to “Minnesota and Black History Month”

  1. Barb Minor says:

    Thank you for this synopsis. It is eye-opening.