Founded by Swedish Americans in St. Peter in 1862, Gustavus Adolphus College attracted a mostly white student body for much of its history. In the 1960s, the college took steps to diversify its campus by recruiting and retaining African American students from the South. This effort made Gustavus unique among Midwestern liberal arts colleges.
From their state's admission to the Union until the mid-1860s, a majority of Minnesotans advocated the abolition of slavery in the South. Black suffrage, however, did not enjoy the same support. Minnesota's black citizens paid taxes, fought in wars, and fostered their communities. But they could not vote, hold political office, or serve on juries. This continued until 1868 when an amendment to the state's constitution approved suffrage for all non-white men.
Fur trader and translator George Bonga was one of the first black men born in what later became Minnesota. His mother was Ojibwe, as were both of his wives. Through these relationships, Bonga was part of the mixed racial and cultural groups that connected trading companies and American Indians. He frequently guided white immigrants and traders through the region. Comfortable in many worlds, Bonga often worked as an advocate for the Ojibwe in their dealings with trading companies and the government.
The 1909 Casiville Bullard House in St. Paul is a rare example of a house built and owned by an African American skilled laborer in the early twentieth century in Minnesota. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 in recognition of its significance.
On the night of July 19, 1967, racial tension in North Minneapolis erupted along Plymouth Avenue in a series of acts of arson, assaults, and vandalism. The violence, which lasted for three nights, is often linked with other race-related demonstrations in cities across the nation during 1967’s “long hot summer.”
Marvel Cooke was a pioneering African American female journalist and political activist. Cooke's groundbreaking career was spent in a world where she was often the only female African American. Talking about her work for the white-owned newspaper the Compass, she told biographer Kay Mills in 1988, ''there were no black workers there and no women."
In 1910 there were over sixty orphanages and homes for the aged operated by and for African Americans in the United States. Minnesota had one of them: St. Paul's Crispus Attucks Home. The home was named for the African American patriot killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770. It served the community for six decades, beginning in 1906 during the Jim Crow era and ending in 1966 at the peak of the civil rights movement.
African Americans Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson Scott lived at Fort Snelling in the 1830s as enslaved people. Both the Northwest Ordinance (1787) and the Missouri Compromise (1820) prohibited slavery in the area, but slavery existed there even so. In the 1840s the Scotts sued for their freedom, arguing that having lived in “free territory” made them free. The 1857 Supreme Court decision that grew out of their suit moved the U.S. closer to civil war.
On August 21, 1860, enslaved African American Eliza Winston was freed from her Mississippi slaveholder in a Minneapolis court. After being granted legal freedom, however, Winston faced white mob violence and was forced to leave the area. The event showed that although slavery was illegal in Minnesota, many white Minnesotans supported the practice when it economically benefited them.
The U.S. Army built Fort Snelling between 1820 and 1825 to protect American interests in the fur trade. It tasked the fort’s troops with deterring advances by the British in Canada, enforcing boundaries between the region’s American Indian nations, and preventing Euro-American immigrants from intruding on American Indian land. In these early years and until its temporary closure in 1858, Fort Snelling was a place where diverse people interacted and shaped the future state of Minnesota.
The U.S.–Dakota War of 1862 was a turning point in Minnesota history. Joseph Godfrey, an enslaved man , joined the Dakota in their fight against white settlers that summer and fall. He was one of only two African Americans to do so.
Nellie Stone Johnson was an African American union and civil rights leader whose career spanned the class-conscious politics of the 1930s and the liberal reforms of the Minnesota DFL Party. She believed unions and education were paths to economic security for African Americans, including women. Her self-reliant personality and pragmatic politics sustained her long and active life.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Fredrick McGhee was known as one of Minnesota's most prominent trial lawyers. In 1905 he was one of a group of thirty-two men, led by W.E.B. DuBois, who founded the Niagara Movement, which called for full civil liberties and an end to racial discrimination.
In July 1902 St. Paul hosted the most important African-American political event of the year: the annual meeting of the National Afro-American Council (NAAC). St. Paul lawyer Fredrick McGhee organized it and hoped that it would produce a more united and effective national civil rights organization. The opposite occurred.
In the early morning of June 2, 1895, Houston Osborne, a young African American man, broke into Frieda Kachel's bedroom in her St. Paul home. When Kachel screamed, Osborne ran; he was caught and hanged from a cottonwood tree but let down while he was still alive. He died in prison eighteen months later.
Kirby Puckett played twelve seasons as a center fielder for the Minnesota Twins. Known for both his playing skills and his spirit, “Puck” played a major role in rejuvenating the team and leading them to World Series victories in 1987 and 1991. Although his career was cut short by eye problems, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
During World War I, African American Minnesotans wanted to serve their state and their nation. Historically, however, the U.S. military had been racist in its recruiting. It allowed African Americans to serve only in segregated units. Facing this institutional racism, the African American community of Minnesota asked Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to form an all-African American battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard. The Sixteenth Battalion became the first Minnesota-recruited African American military unit in state history.
Lena Olive Smith was a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist during the 1920s and 1930s. She made major contributions toward securing civil rights for minorities in the Twin Cities. Smith began fighting for the rights of others when she became the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota in 1921. She was the only African American woman to practice law in the state until 1945.
St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church has played a central role in Duluth’s African American community for over 125 years. While other black organizations have dissolved or moved to the Twin Cities, St. Mark’s has been a mainstay.
Founded in 1888, St. Peter Claver Church was the first African American Catholic Church in Minnesota. The parish was created by St. Paul’s African American Catholic community and an Archbishop who vowed to “blot out the color line.”
Marcenia Lyle (Toni "Tomboy") Stone broke both gender and racial barriers by becoming the first female professional baseball player in the Negro Major League. During her career, she played with a variety of men's teams before making history when she joined the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Major League Team.
James Thompson was born into a life of slavery in Virginia around 1799. He overcame the hardships of that life to work as a capable English-Dakota interpreter for Methodist missionary Alfred Brunson. After winning his freedom in the 1830s he became a respected citizen of the city of St. Paul known for his accomplishments more than his skin color.
The Western Appeal was one of the most successful African American newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the height of its popularity, it was published in six separate editions in cities across the United States, including St. Paul.
John Francis (J. Frank) Wheaton, a Twin Cities lawyer and orator, became the first African American elected to serve in the Minnesota legislature in 1898. A target of racial prejudice throughout his life, Wheaton believed in the political process as a means to improve the state’s civil rights laws.
Clarence Wigington, the nation’s first African American municipal architect, served as lead architect in over ninety St. Paul city projects. His legacy in brick and stone has lasted well into the twenty-first century. He designed both the enduring (schools, fire stations, park buildings) and the ephemeral (five Winter Carnival ice palaces).