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Wheaton, John Francis (1866–1922)

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Black and white photograph of John Frank Wheaton, c.1899.

John Frank Wheaton, c.1899. Photograph by Zimmerman, Charles A.

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.

Wheaton was born on May 8, 1866, in Hagerstown, Maryland, to Jacob Francis and Emily Green Wheaton. He valued education and worked hard to attain it. At Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, he earned a teaching degree and taught school while studying law. Later, he took a summer business course at Dixon Business College in Illinois. In 1892, he obtained a law degree from Howard University Law School in Washington, DC. After months of struggle against discriminatory practices, Wheaton was admitted to the Maryland Bar and permitted to practice law.

Wheaton’s strong interest in politics was perhaps inspired by his father, who claimed to be the first African American to cast a vote in Maryland after blacks achieved suffrage in 1879. Young Wheaton was named a delegate to the Maryland Republican State Convention three times, in 1887, 1889, and 1891. He campaigned for presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison in 1888, giving speeches at local meetings. That year, at age twenty-two, he was chosen as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Wheaton moved to Minnesota in 1893. He put himself through the University of Minnesota’s law school by working as a hotel waiter and railroad porter. In 1894, he received his degree. He was the first African American to graduate from the law school and only the fourth to earn a degree from the University.

Wheaton’s political career quickly advanced in Minnesota. He began work in the law office of Judge William A. Kerr in 1894. The judge helped the young lawyer obtain a position in 1895 as assistant file clerk for the Minnesota House of Representatives. There, Wheaton earned a salary of five dollars per day. Judge Kerr would later appoint him as second deputy clerk for the Minneapolis municipal court in 1897.

Despite his good education and respected standing in the community, Wheaton continued to encounter prejudice based on his race. In 1895, he went to lunch at the Creamery restaurant in Minneapolis with fellow attorney D.M. Scribner and State Representative George F. Wright. After Wheaton was refused service, all three men left the restaurant in protest. Wheaton filed suit against the owner for discrimination.

In 1897, Wheaton once again came face-to-face with racial prejudice. While eating at St. Paul's Metropolitan Hotel with a friend, he was accused of stealing the wallet of a prominent white man. The accuser dropped the charges and they were not searched. Outraged, Wheaton filed suit against the man for twenty thousand dollars in damages from false arrest and imprisonment. No record has been found of the results of either lawsuit.

These events may have inspired Wheaton’s decision to run for public office in 1898. He ran on the Republican ticket to represent the Kenwood district of Minneapolis. The district had an estimated nine thousand eligible voters, fewer than fifty of whom were black. Some voters in the district expressed prejudicial concerns about a black candidate, but Wheaton won the election. He became the first African American to serve in the Minnesota legislature.

Representative Wheaton introduced fifteen bills during his one term in office (1899). Chief among them was an amendment to an 1885 civil rights bill that prevented businesses from refusing service to anyone on the basis of race or color. Wheaton proposed an addition that made the list of pertinent businesses exhaustive. The bill passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor John Lind on March 6, 1899.

Wheaton did not run for reelection in 1900. Instead, he went to Chicago to help establish the United Brotherhood, an insurance company open to people of all races. He returned to Minnesota briefly before moving to New York City in 1902. There, he continued his career in law and public service.

In 1922, police called for Wheaton to pay a high-priced bail bond after one of his clients—an alleged murderer—escaped town. Bankrupt, he committed suicide at his home on January 15.

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“$20,000 Wanted By J. Frank Wheaton for a Rank Outrage put Upon Him.” St. Paul Appeal, January 8, 1898.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016810/1898-01-08/ed-1/seq-3

An act to protect all persons in their civil and legal rights. Minnesota Session Laws – 1899, Regular Session, General Laws, Chapter 41.
https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/laws/?year=1899&type=0&doctype=Chapter&group=General+Laws&id=41

“An Ebony Legislator.” St. Paul Globe, February 12, 1899.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1899-02-12/ed-1/seq-20

“Civil Rights Case. Judge Twohy Hears Wheaton’s Complaint Against McDonald.” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 21, 1895.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1895-04-21/ed-1/seq-3

“Hon. J. Frank Wheaton Dead.” St. Paul Appeal, January 21, 1922.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016810/1922-01-21/ed-1/seq-2

House Record of House Bills, 1857–1953
Minnesota Legislature, House of Representatives
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001704736
Description: Register books recording the progress of house bills from introduction to final disposition.

“Insists On His Rights; J. Frank Wheaton Prosecuting Restaurant Keeper, Who Drew The Color Line.” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 17, 1895.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1895-04-17/ed-1/seq-3

"Minneapolis Globules." St. Paul Globe, January 27, 1897.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1897-01-27/ed-1/seq-3/

Shutter, Marion D. Progressive Men of Minnesota. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Journal, 1897.
http://www.leg.mn/archive/LegDB/Articles/112076ProgMenMN.pdf

“Suit for $20,000.” St. Paul Daily Globe, December 31, 1897.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1897-12-31/ed-1/seq-2

“Taxes a Target.” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 9, 1895.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1895-03-09/ed-1/seq-6

“To Aid Colored Men.” St. Paul Globe, January 14, 1900.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1900-01-14/ed-1/seq-20

“To Insure Black Men.” St. Paul Globe, January 7, 1900.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1900-01-07/ed-1/seq-5

Wheaton, John Francis. ‘Frank, J. Frank.’ Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.
http://www.leg.state.mn.us/legdb/fulldetail.aspx?ID=12076

Wright, George F. Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.
http://www.leg.state.mn.us/legdb/fulldetail.aspx?ID=11884

Related Images

Black and white photograph of John Frank Wheaton, c.1899.
Black and white photograph of John Frank Wheaton, c.1899.
Black and white photograph of University of Minnesota Law School graduates, 1894.
Black and white photograph of University of Minnesota Law School graduates, 1894.
Black and white composite of the House of Representatives, Governor and Lieutenant Governor, 1899.
Black and white composite of the House of Representatives, Governor and Lieutenant Governor, 1899.
Black and white photograph of State Capitol, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of State Capitol, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of John Frank Wheaton, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of John Frank Wheaton, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of J. Frank Wheaton, c.1913.
Black and white photograph of J. Frank Wheaton, c.1913.

Turning Point

J. Frank Wheaton is elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1898, making him the first African American to serve in the state legislature.

Chronology

1866

John Francis Wheaton is born in Hagerstown, Maryland, on May 8.

1882

Wheaton graduates as class valedictorian from Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

1887

Wheaton is named a delegate to the Maryland Republican State Convention.

1888

At age twenty-two, he is chosen as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

1889

Wheaton is appointed a clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives document room during the Fifty-First Congress.

1892

He graduates from Howard University’s law school in Washington, DC. After a struggle to obtain permission to take the exam, he is admitted to the Maryland State Bar.

1893

Wheaton moves to Minnesota. He works as a hotel waiter and railroad porter to raise money for more law school training.

1894

He graduates from the University of Minnesota’s law school after completing the two-year program in one year.

1895

After being denied service at the Creamery restaurant in Minneapolis on April 8, Wheaton brings suit against the owner for discrimination.

1896

The Fifth Minnesota Congressional District elects Wheaton as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. He is the first African American to represent Minnesota at a major party’s national convention.

1897

Wheaton is wrongly accused of stealing and files suit for twenty thousand dollars in damages for false arrest and imprisonment.

1898

He is elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives by the primarily white voters of the Kenwood district in Minneapolis. He is the first African American to serve in the state legislature.

1899

Wheaton amends a civil rights bill that requires all owners of places of amusement, accommodation, and public transportation to serve African Americans. The bill passes both the House and Senate and is signed by Governor Lind.

1902

He moves to New York City, where he establishes a successful legal practice and continues in public service.

1922

Wheaton commits suicide at his home in New York City on January 15.