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How African Americans Have Shaped the State

African Americans in Minnesota

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Black-and-white engravings of Dred Scott (at right) and Harriet Robinson Scott (at left) that appeared in the Jun 27, 1857 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

Engravings of Harriet Robinson Scott (at left) and Dred Scott (at right) that appeared in the June 27, 1857 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

African Americans have lived in Minnesota since the 1800s. The local African American population developed from individuals who were born in the state as well as those who migrated to Minnesota from other states in search of a better life. Despite being subjected to discrimination and inequality, African Americans established communities and institutions that contributed to the vibrancy of the state. This article defines African Americans as Americans who are descendants of enslaved black Africans in the U.S. and does not include immigrants or refugees from Africa.

EARLY SETTLER-COLONISTS AND THE BLACK POPULATION

George Bonga, born near Duluth in 1802, is believed to be the first black person born in Minnesota. His father was black and his mother was Ojibwe. Bonga became a fur trader like his father and also worked as a translator as he was fluent in English, French, and Ojibwe. He married an Ojibwe woman, and they along with their children lived in the Leech Lake area, where they operated a lodge. Bungo Township in Cass County is named after Bonga’s family.

Although slavery was not allowed in Minnesota, officers stationed at Fort Snelling, fur traders, and vacationing southerners brought enslaved people to the state in the late 1800s. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, lived at the fort in the 1830s. James Thompson, an enslaved man, lived at Fort Snelling in 1827 and was emancipated in 1837. He lived in St. Paul, where he worked as a carpenter. Eliza Winston, an enslaved woman who visited Minnesota with her owners from Mississippi, obtained her freedom in 1860 after a judge ruled she was a free woman. In 1862, Joseph Godfrey, an enslaved man born near Mendota, escaped and joined the Dakota, with whom he fought against white settler-colonists during the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862.

African Americans migrated to the state during the Civil War as Minnesota suffered a labor shortage. White Minnesotans who served in the U.S. Colored Regiments sent enslaved men and women who had escaped to Minnesota to work on farms and in the army. In 1863, the steamboats Northerner and Davenport brought enslaved people to Minnesota who had escaped from Missouri.

The Mississippi River was a frequently traveled route connecting St. Louis and St. Paul. Reverend Robert Hickman and about seventy-five enslaved men, women, and children escaped from Missouri and traveled north to live and work as free persons. They were found adrift on the Mississippi River, where the Northerner encountered the raft and towed it to St. Paul.

On May 5, 1863, when the Northerner reached St. Paul, an angry crowd threatened them, so the steamboat continued to Fort Snelling. Less than two weeks later, on May 15, 1863, the steamboat Davenport, escorted by the Union Army, brought over two hundred enslaved persons to work in St. Paul. At the end of the war, a few freed people followed soldiers returning to Minnesota to work as laborers. Many moved to cities and towns, and a few became farmers.

The black population in Minnesota has historically been small. According to the state census, in 1890 Minnesota’s total population was 1,310,283 and the black population was 3,683—only 0.3 percent. The state’s black population remained below 1 percent for many years.

The black population began growing significantly between 1950 and 1970 during the “Great Migration” of African Americans from southern states to the North, Midwest, and West. Although Minnesota’s black population did not increase as much as the populations of other northern states, such as Illinois and Michigan, during this twenty-year period, it rose by 149 percent.

The black population continued to increase, but remained small. In 1980, the state’s total population was 4,075,970 and its black population was 53,344. By 2010, the census reported Minnesota’s total population as 5,303,925, compared to the black population of 274,412—only 5 percent.

STRUGGLE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

Blacks were not allowed to vote until 1868, when voters approved the equal suffrage amendment to the Minnesota constitution, which gave voting rights to black men. The amendment had been rejected twice—in 1865 and 1867—before passing. Minnesota granted black men the right to vote two years before the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted such a right in 1870.

While Minnesota was considered a progressive state and had laws against discrimination, many restaurants and hotels denied blacks service. In addition, restrictive housing covenants prevented blacks from moving into many neighborhoods.

African Americans experienced discrimination in housing, employment, and education, but they challenged discriminatory practices by filing court actions and creating organizations to fight for civil rights. In 1865, St. Paul segregated its public schools by opening a “School for Colored Children.” The St. Paul schools were the only education system in Minnesota that was segregated. In response to community and political pressure, the state legislature passed a law in 1869 banning school segregation in St. Paul.

In 1885, Minnesota passed the Equal Accommodations Act, which guaranteed blacks equal access to all public places and hotels. However, in 1887, William Hazel, a black architect, was denied a room at the Clarendon and Astoria hotels in St. Paul because of his race. When he complained, he was arrested. Hazel filed a lawsuit and won. In 1897, Minnesota passed a civil rights law that was quickly tested by McCants Stewart, who filed suit in 1898 against a restaurant when he was refused service. The jury took only fifteen minutes to decide in Stewart’s favor.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, blacks formed groups to fight discrimination. These included the Minnesota Protective and Industrial League, the Afro-American League, and the Minnesota Citizen Civil Rights Committee. In 1902, the annual meeting of the National Afro-American Council was held in St. Paul and attended by national leaders W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Booker T. Washington. The meeting, organized by St. Paul attorney Fredrick McGhee, prompted a split between Du Bois and Washington, who had different ideologies and methods regarding blacks’ pursuit of civil rights. Du Bois, McGhee, and others formed the Niagara Movement, which led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. The NAACP formed local branches in St. Paul in 1913 and Minneapolis in 1914.

In 1919, during a “red summer,” race riots erupted in several American cities, resulting in numerous deaths and extensive property damage. Also during this period, the NAACP published a report examining lynching and sponsored anti-lynching legislation. In 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were circus workers who were accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. They were dragged from jail, beaten, and hung from a telephone pole by a white mob while thousands of people, including the police, watched. The lynching led to the enactment of an anti-lynch law that had been lobbied for by an African American suffragist and civil rights leader named Nellie Francis. Soon, the Duluth branch of the NAACP was organized. In 2003, the City of Duluth built a memorial to honor the three men who were brutally killed.

Housing discrimination was rampant in the Twin Cities, and incidents of racially motivated violence occurred when blacks moved into white neighborhoods. Lena O. Smith, the first black woman to become an attorney in Minnesota, challenged discrimination in the courts. But discrimination continued. In 1931, a black family, Arthur and Edith Lee, moved into a white neighborhood in South Minneapolis. White residents tried to get them to sell their home, but they refused. A mob protested outside their house every night, throwing rocks and black paint, shouting threats and racial slurs, and leaving garbage and excrement on the lawn. The harassment continued for two years until the Lees moved to a historically black neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The Lee house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. There were other sporadic incidents of racially motivated intimidation against blacks when they moved into white neighborhoods, including cross burnings.

In 1967, during the “long hot summer,” hundreds of race riots erupted across the country. Racial tensions exploded along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis when blacks demonstrated against discrimination and police brutality. The Minnesota National Guard was dispatched to Plymouth Avenue for over a week.

Employment discrimination was pervasive in Minnesota. While some blacks worked in skilled trade jobs as stonecutters and bricklayers, many white employers refused to hire blacks. This limited their opportunities to unskilled jobs as laborers, waiters, cooks, and porters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Blacks who worked for the railroad as porters organized St. Paul Lodge No. 5 of the United Brotherhood of Railway Porters of North America in 1887. In 1925, A. Philip Randolph organized a national union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Frank Boyd, who had worked as a Pullman porter since 1907, organized meetings for the Brotherhood in St. Paul. Boyd was fired for union organizing. In 1976, the City of St. Paul dedicated a park in his name.

The St. Paul Urban League was founded in 1923 to address black unemployment and race discrimination. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) encouraged workers to organize unions, but most labor unions barred blacks from membership. Despite this prohibition, Anthony Cassius and Nellie Stone Johnson became prominent labor organizers in Minnesota. Cassius organized the all-black waiters union at the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis in 1935 after learning that white waiters made more money than black waiters. The Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union did not accept black members, so Cassius organized Local 614 of the Hotel and Restaurant Waiters Union.

Cassius sued the hotel and won a $13,000 wage increase and $3,500 in back pay for black waiters in 1940. Johnson helped organize Local 665 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union at the Minneapolis Athletic Club. She later became the first black elected official when she was elected to the Minneapolis Library Board in 1945, and she helped create the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL). A school in Minneapolis is named after Johnson.

COMMUNITIES AND INSTITUTIONS

In the twenty-first century, most blacks live in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 2010, of the 274,412 blacks in Minnesota, Minneapolis had the largest population with 71,098, followed by St. Paul with 44,728. While some blacks have achieved success, the Twin Cities continue to have problems with racial disparities and segregation.

Due to restrictive covenants and discriminatory housing practices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blacks were limited to living in certain areas, which created distinct black communities. In Minneapolis, blacks lived on the near Northside along Sixth and Lyndale Avenues North; at Seven Corners, where Washington, Fifteenth Avenue, Nineteenth Avenue, and Cedar Avenue intersect; and on the Southside, between Nicollet and Chicago Avenues and Thirty-fourth and Forty-sixth Streets. A black enclave also developed in the Shingle Creek neighborhood near Fiftieth Street and Humboldt Avenue North.

In St. Paul, blacks lived in the Rondo neighborhood, south of University Avenue from Rice Street to Lexington Parkway. In the 1960s, the Rondo neighborhood was destroyed and more than six hundred residents were displaced to make way for Interstate 94. The annual Rondo Days and Jazz Festivals commemorate its history. In the 1970s, some African Americans moved from Rondo and other historically black neighborhoods to new areas in the Twin Cities and the suburbs.

The first black churches were organized in the 1800s. St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Minneapolis was organized in 1863 as a small prayer group; it became a church in 1869. Pilgrim Baptist Church was founded in 1866; St. Mark’s Episcopal Church was organized in 1867; St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in St. Paul was organized in 1876; St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1880; Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church was formed in 1887; and St. Peter Claver Catholic Church was organized in 1888. Blacks created business districts in Rondo; in South Minneapolis at Thirty-Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue; and in North Minneapolis along Plymouth Avenue.

African Americans started community centers that provided housing and employment information and recreational activities. In Minneapolis, the Phyllis Wheatley House was founded in 1924 as a “settlement house,” and Sabathani Community Center was established in 1966. In St. Paul, the Neighborhood House was established in 1897, the Welcome Hall Community Center in 1916, the Christian Center in 1926, and the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in 1929.

Blacks also founded newspapers and publications. The Western Appeal and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder were the longest running and most successful. The Western Appeal was published from 1885 to 1923, and John Q. Adams was its outspoken editor. Roy Wilkins, who led the NAACP from 1949 to 1977, also served as editor at the Appeal. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (formerly the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder), Minnesota’s longest-published black newspaper and black-owned business, was founded in 1934 by Cecil Newman. In 2015, the paper celebrated its eightieth anniversary and was designated a historic landmark.

From 1885 to 1974, there were almost twenty black newspapers published in the state. In 2017, there are only two: the Spokesman-Recorder and Insight News. In addition to newspapers, Walter Scott Sr. published photo books featuring blacks in Minneapolis between the 1950s and 1970s called the Minneapolis Beacon and Minneapolis Negro Profile.

Blacks formed social clubs, fraternal organizations, bowling leagues and baseball teams but were historically excluded from private golf clubs and tournaments. In response, Jimmie Slemmons created the Minnesota Negro Open golf tournament in 1939 to give blacks an opportunity to play and compete. The tournament was renamed the Upper Midwest Bronze Amateur Tournament in 1954 and attracted participants from around the country. Former heavyweight champion Joe Louis won the tournament in 1957.

Outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul, black communities developed in pockets around Duluth and Fergus Falls in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Blacks moved to Duluth in search of jobs created by the railroad, shipping, and mining industries. John Nichols, who moved to Duluth in 1884, owned and operated the City Hotel until his death in 1907. In 1890, Reverend Richmond Taylor founded St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Many social clubs established in the Twin Cities also had chapters in Duluth. There were black newspapers: the World, published by P. O. Gray in 1895, and the Progressive News Review, published in 1904 by Henry Williams. In the 1920s, the U.S. Steel Corporation recruited black laborers from the South to work in its Duluth plant. However, many workers left because of low wages, segregated housing, and cold weather. Duluth’s black population was 1,946 in 2015.

In Fergus Falls, Prince Honeycutt was the city’s first black resident (1872). He owned a barbershop, founded the local baseball team, and ran for mayor in 1896. In 1898, a group of eighty-five African Americans moved to Fergus Falls from Kentucky after being recruited by real estate agents. They started farms, opened businesses, founded a church, and built homes, but during the Great Depression in the 1930s, many families faced financial hardship and moved away. Descendants of the “First 85” gathered in Fergus Falls in 2010 for a reunion. In 2015, only 156 blacks lived in Fergus Falls.

TRAILBLAZERS

African Americans contributed to and achieved success in medicine, education, law, business, politics, and the arts. Some Minnesota trailblazers were Dr. Robert S. Brown, the first black doctor; Richard Green, the first black superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools; and Clarence “Cap” Wigington, the first black municipal architect. Frederick Jones was the first black inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He created the Thermo King portable refrigeration unit, which allowed delivery trucks to keep goods cool. Archie Givens, a business owner and real estate developer, was the first black millionaire in Minnesota. He and his wife, Phebe, established the Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota, which consists of over 10,000 books, magazines, and pamphlets by or about African Americans.

Blacks excelled in the field of law. Fredrick McGhee was Minnesota’s first black lawyer; Lena Smith the first black female lawyer; L. Howard Bennett the first black municipal judge; and Stephen Maxwell the first black district court judge. Pamela Alexander was the first black female prosecutor and first black female judge in Hennepin County. In addition, Alan Page was the first black judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court; Michael J. Davis was the first black federal judge in Minnesota; and Wilhelmina Wright was the first black female federal judge in Minnesota.

In politics, John Francis Wheaton was the first black elected to the Minnesota legislature; Neva Walker the first black woman elected to the Minnesota legislature; Van White the first black elected to the Minneapolis City Council; Sharon Sayles Belton the first black and first woman elected Mayor of Minneapolis; Bill Wilson the first black elected to the St. Paul City Council; Jean Harris the first black woman elected mayor of Eden Prairie; and Keith Ellison the first black elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota.

African Americans’ contributions to the arts transcended Minnesota and received international recognition. Prince Rogers Nelson (Prince), born in Minneapolis, was a legendary singer-songwriter, actor, multi-instrumentalist musician, philanthropist, and producer. Prince, who died in 2016, was also a best-selling artist who won Grammy, American Music, Golden Globe, and Academy awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. He created the “Minneapolis Sound,” a mix of soul, dance, funk, and rock and roll music that featured synthesizers and drum machines.

Jimmy “Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis started their music careers in the Minneapolis band “Flyte Tyme.” The group later became “The Time,” which was produced by Prince. Harris and Lewis also wrote and produced hit songs for numerous artists, including Janet Jackson. Grammy-award-winning Sounds of Blackness, a musical ensemble, started in 1969 at Macalester College. Grammy-nominated band Mint Condition was started in the 1980s at St. Paul Central High School. Penumbra Theatre, founded in 1976 by artistic director Lou Bellamy, is credited with launching the career of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

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Anderson Cumberbatch, Jessica. “Fergus Falls ‘First 85’ Reunion Celebrates Black Role in how the West Was Won.” Huffington Post, August 11, 2012.

Aslanian, Sasha. “Pilgrim Baptist Church, Founded by Former Slaves, Celebrates 150 Years.” Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), June 13, 2013.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/06/13/pilgrim-baptist-church-founded-by-former-slaves-celebrates-150-years

Bachman, Walt. Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013.

Belz, Adam. “Minneapolis Honors Former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton with Bronze Bust.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 16, 2017.

Brandt, Steve. “Site of Racial Showdown in Minneapolis Heading to National Register.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 24, 2014.

Brataas, Anne. “Racial Détente: Blacks Erasing Suburban Bias” and “Pioneer Family Marks a Generation of Sharing.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 14, 1982.

Brown, Curt. “Minnesota’s First Black Woman Lawyer Fought Issues Familiar Today.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 4, 2015.

“Cross is Set Afire on Negro’s Lawn.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 22, 1961.

“Crowd of 3,000 Renews Attack on Negroes’ Home.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 16, 1931.

Delton, Jennifer A. “Labor, Politics, and African American Identity in Minneapolis, 1930–1950.” In The North Star State: A Minnesota History Reader, edited by Anne J. Aby, 316–332. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002.

Elliott, Paige. “House in South Minneapolis Added to National Register of Historic Places.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, July 25, 2014.

Foley, Ellen. “Black Family Shaken by Cross-burning.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 21, 1984.

Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

——— . “When Minorities are the Majority: A Challenge to Desegregation, the Challenge for Public Education (Minneapolis, A Case Study).” Forum on Public Policy no. 2 (Spring 2007).
http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/archivespring07/green.pdf

——— . “To Remove the Stain: The Trial of the Duluth Lynchers.” Minnesota History 59, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 22–35.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/59/v59i01p022-035.pdf

——— . “Eliza Winston and the Politics of Freedom in Minnesota, 1854–1860.” Minnesota History 57, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 106–120.
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Guo, Jeff. “If Minneapolis is So Great, Why is it So Bad for African Americans?” Washington Post, February 17, 2015.

Hendricks, Henry. “Mother St. James AME Church celebrates 150th Anniversary in Minneapolis.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, July 15, 2013.

Heidenrieich, Douglas R. “A Citizen of Fine Spirit.” William Mitchell Law Review 18, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 2–6.
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Hightower, Clarence. “MN ranked Second-worst State in U.S. for Blacks to Live.” Minnesota Spokesman–Recorder, January 9, 2015.

Hoffbeck, Steven, ed. Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.

Kerr, Euan. “Before ‘Fences,’ August Wilson was a Poet – and a St. Paulite.” Minnesota Public News (MPR), December 23, 2016.

Kelly, Suzanne. “Those Outstate Can Feel Isolated.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 18, 1991.

Klauda, Paul. “Blacks on the Move: Many Choosing Life in Suburbs.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 18, 1991.

Melo, Frederick. “16 Trailblazing Black Minnesotans You Should Know More About.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 9, 2016.

Montemayor, Stephen. “Senate Confirms Wilhelmina Wright as U.S. Judge in Historic Appointment.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 19, 2016.

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“Paint hurled as Negroes Move to White Area.” Minneapolis Star, September 15, 1955.

“Pastors Rally to Negroes in Eviction Case.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 10, 1952.

Phifer, Ivan. “Hidden History: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.” Minnesota Spokesman–Recorder, May 24, 2017.

Rietmulder, Michael. “Progressive Twin Cities Third Worst Metro for African Americans.” City Pages, October 8, 2015.

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Races in Duluth, MN, 2015.
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Races in Rochester, MN, 2015.
http://www.city-data.com/city/Rochester-Minnesota.html

U.S. Federal Census Bureau records for 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010.

Related Images

Black-and-white engravings of Dred Scott (at right) and Harriet Robinson Scott (at left) that appeared in the Jun 27, 1857 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Black-and-white engravings of Dred Scott (at right) and Harriet Robinson Scott (at left) that appeared in the Jun 27, 1857 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Sepia-colored photograph of Charles Bonga
Sepia-colored photograph of Charles Bonga
Fredrick L. McGhee
Fredrick L. McGhee
Black and white photograph of William T. Francis, ca. 1904.
Black and white photograph of William T. Francis, ca. 1904.
Black and white photograph of embers of Company A, Sixteenth Battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of embers of Company A, Sixteenth Battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of children on steps of Phyllis Wheatley House, ca. 1925.
Black and white photograph of children on steps of Phyllis Wheatley House, ca. 1925.
Black and white photograph of the Congregation in front of Pilgrim Baptist Church on opening day (December 16, 1927), 732 West Central Avenue, St. Paul.
Black and white photograph of the Congregation in front of Pilgrim Baptist Church on opening day (December 16, 1927), 732 West Central Avenue, St. Paul.
Black and white photograph of I. Mytle Carden with Mary McLeod Bethune, ca. 1930.
Black and white photograph of I. Mytle Carden with Mary McLeod Bethune, ca. 1930.
Black and white photograph of a group of golfers including Jimmie Slemmons, ca. 1938.
Black and white photograph of a group of golfers including Jimmie Slemmons, ca. 1938.
Black and white photograph of the interior of the Credjafawn Co-op Store, 678 Rondo Avenue, St. Paul, ca. 1950.
Black and white photograph of the interior of the Credjafawn Co-op Store, 678 Rondo Avenue, St. Paul, ca. 1950.
Black and white photograph of members of the Credjafawn Social Club, ca. 1950.
Black and white photograph of members of the Credjafawn Social Club, ca. 1950.
Black and white photograph of a square dance, Hallie Q. Brown Center, St. Paul, 1952.
Black and white photograph of a square dance, Hallie Q. Brown Center, St. Paul, 1952.
Black and white photograph of a children’s piano recital at Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, Minneapolis, ca. 1953.
Black and white photograph of a children’s piano recital at Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, Minneapolis, ca. 1953.
Portrait photograph of Roy Wilkins
Portrait photograph of Roy Wilkins
Black and white photograph of NAACP members picketing outside Woolworth’s for integrated lunch counters, St. Paul, 1960.
Black and white photograph of NAACP members picketing outside Woolworth’s for integrated lunch counters, St. Paul, 1960.
Black and white photograph of the senior usher board, St. Peter’s AME Church, Minneapolis, ca. 1960.
Black and white photograph of the senior usher board, St. Peter’s AME Church, Minneapolis, ca. 1960.
Color image of an event held in honor of Anthony Brutus Cassius, 1980.
Color image of an event held in honor of Anthony Brutus Cassius, 1980.
Color image of the band Flyte Tyme, ca. 1980.
Color image of the band Flyte Tyme, ca. 1980.
Color image of children and adults during a picnic. Photograph by Charles Chamblis, ca. 1985.
Color image of children and adults during a picnic. Photograph by Charles Chamblis, ca. 1985.
Color image of Kirby Puckett at batting practice, c.1994.
Color image of Kirby Puckett at batting practice, c.1994.
Color image of the Sabathanites Drum Corps, Minneapolis, ca. early 2000s. Photographed by Suluki Fardan.
Color image of the Sabathanites Drum Corps, Minneapolis, ca. early 2000s. Photographed by Suluki Fardan.

Overview

African Americans have lived in Minnesota since the 1800s. The population grew from individuals born in the state as well as those who migrated to Minnesota from other states in search of a better life.

Although African Americans are the largest minority group in Minnesota, blacks made up only 5 percent of the state’s total population in 2010.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, African Americans founded churches, newspapers, community centers, and labor unions.

The NAACP formed local branches in St. Paul in 1913, Minneapolis in 1914, and Duluth in 1920 to address discrimination against blacks.

African Americans first became lawyers, doctors and elected politicians in the late 1800s. Fredrick McGhee became the first black admitted to practice law in Minnesota in 1889, Dr. Robert S. Brown became the first black doctor in 1890, and John Francis Wheaton became the first black elected to serve in the Minnesota legislature in 1898.

Chronology

1802

George Bonga is the first black person born in present-day Minnesota.

1836 or 1837

Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson are married at Fort Snelling.

1863

The steamboats Northerner and Davenport bring enslaved people to Minnesota to work during a labor shortage caused by the Civil War.

1868

Black men are granted the right to vote when an equal suffrage amendment to the Minnesota constitution is passed.

1885

The first edition of the Western Appeal is published.

1898

John Francis Wheaton becomes the first black person elected to serve in the Minnesota legislature.

1902

The annual meeting of the National Afro-American Council is held in St. Paul.

1913 and 1914

The NAACP forms local branches in St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively.

1920

A white mob lynches three black men, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, in Duluth. The NAACP forms a local branch in Duluth in response.

1921

Nellie Francis lobbies for passage of an anti-lynch bill that becomes law. Lena O. Smith becomes the first black woman to practice law in Minnesota.

1934

The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (formerly the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder) is founded.

1967

Racial tensions erupt on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis when blacks demonstrate against discrimination and police brutality. The Minnesota National Guard patrols Plymouth Avenue for over a week.

1993

Sharon Sayles Belton is elected the first African American and first woman mayor of Minneapolis.

2001

Neva Walker is the first black woman elected to the Minnesota legislature.

2007

Keith Ellison is the first African American elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Congress.

2016

Wilhelmina Wright is appointed the first black female federal judge in Minnesota.