The month of February, recognized in myriad ways by most Americans as African American History Month, turns a venerable 90 years old this year. Last year’s post focused on the centenary of the association that introduced the concept, the Association for the Study of American Life and History and Culture founded by Carter G. Woodson. (https://netforum.avectra.com/eweb/DynamicPage.aspx?Site=asalh&WebCode=aboutasalh) After 90 years that fledging initiative has morphed to its present recognition as Black American Month or National African American History, a grand celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a recognition of the central role of African Americans in U.S. – and global – history.
Because this blog, in content and readership, has a Minnesota-centric bias, the thought occurred to celebrate by shining a light on the role of African American individuals and institutions close to home. It’s also an opportunity to remind readers, teachers, parents and researchers of the role of MNOpedia, a living resource that is growing in its critical role as chronicler of the North Star State.
As a very occasional contributor I am familiar with the rigorous rules that guide the research, writing and editing processes that shape MNOpedia. I have the highest regard for staff and for the scores of researchers who volunteer their time to record and share the stories of Minnesota’s people, places and things. The hallmark of MNOpedia is that each entry fills out the narrative and identifies additional resources, analysis, and a chronology that places in perspective the passages in the life of an individual, organization or event. Each article serves as an engaging and accessible point of entry to deeper learning and understanding.
And so I chose to skim the scores of entries about the people, places, organizations and events that reflect the experience of African American Minnesotans. These summaries offer a mere hint of what’s readily accessible on MNOpedia; the few noted here are intended to whet the reader’s appetite.
The theme for African American History Month 2016 is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.” The context sparked by the theme “hallowed grounds” suggests a host of places of worship that have played a significant role in the lives of African American individuals and families as well as of the communities they have served:
- A proud feature of Duluth, and a place of worship for African American Duluthians, is Saint Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. St. Mark’s, founded in 1890 by Reverend Richmond Taylor, is not just a building but also the heart of Duluth’s African American community. This is a community that has weathered hard times including, but certainly not limited to, the 1920 lynching of three African American men. (Note: The Lynchings are described in another MNOpedia entry.)
- Another church that remains central to the African American community is Saint Peter Claver Church in St. Paul, the first African American Catholic Church in Minnesota. In 1910 Father Stephen Theobald, the first African American priest ordained in the St. Paul Seminary, was named pastor of St. Peter Claver. The nucleus of a lively 21st Century community St. Peter Claver, at Oxford and St. Anthony near the much-traveled 94, welcomes a multi-racial congregation and serves as a pillar of the community it serves.
- Crispus Attucks Home, established in St. Paul by AME missionaries Will and Fannie King served people in need for six decades, 1906-1966. Though there were several orphanages in the early days of the 20th century they served neither African American children nor people who were old or infirm. Despite great difficulties the Crispus Attucks home settled and survived for a half century in a house on Railroad Island near Swede Hollow in St. Paul. Though the original house has been razed, the site is now part of Eileen Weida Park and the Crispus Attucks Social Welfare and Education Association sponsors a scholarship fund for African American high school students.
MNOpedia articles also tell the stories of African Americans who designed or constructed “Sites of American Memories”:
- Clarence Wigington served as lead architect in over 90 St. Paul city projects. Though a person, not a place, Wigington and place are indistinguishable in the story of African American influence in Minnesota. Today’s St. Paulites and visitors will see Wigington’s work in the playground buildings at Hamline and Minnehaha parks, the Harriet Island Pavilion, and the Highland Park Water Tower; the latter two are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long-time St. Paul Winter Carnival attendees will recall that the original ice palaces that were envisioned and designed by Wigington.
- Another site well remembered by African Americans and others is described in the MnOpedia article on the Casiville Bullard House, 1282 Folsom Street in St Paul’s Como Heights neighborhood. Built and owned by Casiville Bullard the house is on the National Register of Historic Places. Bullard (b February 24, 1873) came to St. Paul in 1898 to do stone work for the third State Capitol. The work of this African American craftsman is much in the news today as architects and craftsmen restore the original beauty of that edifice.
- Though the sense of place is the 2016 theme of African American History Month, the many MNOpedia entries tell the stories of African American Minnesotans whose lives have made a difference in the lives of Minnesotans and of all Americans. Included among these articles are these:
- George Bonga (c1802-1874) may not be a household word in Minnesota, but he shared his knowledge of words as a translator before Minnesota became a state. Bonga’s father, Pierre Bonga, was African American and his mother was Ojibwe. Educated in Montreal, George spoke fluent English, French and Ojibwe, skills that made him an indispensable player in treaty negotiations in which character as well as language was essential.
- Marvel Jackson Cooke (1901-2000) broke both the color and the gender barrier as a journalist and political activist whose life and work spanned the 20th Century. In some ways she also broke a geographic challenge as the first African American child born in Mankato. As a young girl Marvel’s family moved to the Prospect Park neighborhood in Minneapolis where she was the first African American child enrolled at Sydney Pratt School. Later she attended the U of M, one of five African Americans who graduated with the Class of 1925. Soon after graduation she moved to Harlem where she found work as an editorial assistant for W.E.B. DuBois at The Crisis, the national publication of the NAACP. Thus began an incredible life that included her brief engagement to Roy Wilkins, a lifetime of investigative reporting, and a summons to testify at the McCarthy hearings.
- Nellie Stone Johnson (1905-2002) was a union and civil rights leader and subject of a recent Minnesota History Theatre. The production, affectionately entitled “Nellie” drew huge crowds.
- Renowned as a trial lawyer, Fredrick McGhee (1861-1912) was the first African American admitted to practice law in Minnesota. Known to be a force in the courtroom McGhee was one of the founders of St. Peter Claver Church. He also worked with W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP.
- George Morrison (1919-2000) who is an internationally recognized artist celebrated in the 2015 major exhibition mounted by the Minnesota Historical Society.
- One of the state’s most popular African American heroes is Kirby Puckett (1960-2006), the iconic hero who led the Twins to the World Series not once but twice. Echoes of “k-i-r-by p-u-c-k-e-t-t” still resonate midst the ruins of The Dome. When glaucoma curbed his career Puckett retired from playing but continued with the Twins as Executive Vice President, a role in which he continued as an active and visible community leader.
- Dred and Harriet Robinson Scott, legends in the history of emancipation, lived as slaves at Fort Snelling. the lives of both are recorded in MNOpedia. The struggle for justice is memorialized in the Dred Scott Decision that led directly to the beginning of the Civil War.
- It was the racial prejudice she experienced as a realtor that led Lena Olive Smith (1885-1966) to a career as an attorney. As a graduate of Northwestern College of Law (1921, she was for many years the only African American woman practicing law in the Twin Cities. She is credited with helping end the segregation of African American audiences at area theaters, with prosecuting police brutality and for the NAACP protest of the U of M’s showing of Birth of a Nation.
- African American superstar Marcenia Lyle (Toni) Stone was the first female professional baseball player in the Negro Major League; Stone also played for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Major League Team. The Great American History Theater celebrated the Toni Stone story in a world premiere production of Tomboy Stone in 1993.
- John Francis Wheaton (1866-1922) was elected by white voters of the Kenwood neighborhood to serve as the first African American to serve in the Minnesota Legislature (1898). A native of Hagerstown, Maryland, Wheaton migrated to Minnesota where he put himself through the U of M law school by working as a hotel waiter and railroad porter. Wheaton was the first African American to graduate from the U of M law school, and only the fourth to earn a U of M degree.
- The name of Roy Wilkins (1901-1981) who spent his early years in St. Paul is best known to Minnesotans because of the St. Paul civic center that honors his name. The honor is bestowed on Wilkins because of his lifetime of leadership in the African American community and the civil rights movement. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1923 Wilkins worked as a social worker in Kansas; his leadership in the NAACP led to his appointment as W.E.B. DuBois’ successor as editor of The Crisis, the national publication of NAACP. From there Wilkins moved up the ranks to serve as Executive Director of NAACP, a position in which he immersed himself in legal action, the effects of which changed the nation’s laws. Among Wilkins’ countless tributes is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, bestowed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson.
Articles in MNOpedia also chronicle events that reflect the times and tell the stories of the African American experience in Minnesota.
- One article I particularly enjoyed is the story of the “Journeymen Barbers.” One of the fascinating notes in this article is the description of the ways in which these African American men played a role in passage of Minnesota’s Sunday closing law in 1894. The Journeymen also worked for passage of the nation’s first barber licensing laws. The Journeymen barbers union continued until 1980 when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union assumed jurisdiction over union barbers.
- The story of the Sixteenth Battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard will capture the attention of students young and old. A century ago the U.S. military was segregated in practice, racist in its recruiting. African American Minnesotans petitioned then Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to form an all-African American battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard. The MNOpedia article offers a great summary of this unique story – the bibliography suggests a wealth of resources that will illuminate the lives and contributions of African American military volunteers a century ago.
- “Black Suffrage in Minnesota” is an article that traces the story of abolition as it unfolded in Minnesota – a development that did not follow the Southern path. After the Constitutional Convention of 1857 Minnesota politicians were slow to take bold action, supporting Lincoln’s emancipation policy but reluctant to expand the rights of African Americans. Ultimately, Minnesota joined Iowa as one of just two Northern states to call for suffrage on the national ballot in 1868. Iowa and Minnesota eventually become the first two post-Civil War states in the North whose electorate approved Black voting when both Houses voted to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment which finally passed in 1870.
MNOpedia is designed and supported by Minnesotans to tell the unique stories of Minnesotans with every Minnesotan. February is longer than usual this year, a quadrennial opportunity to spend those extra hours learning and sharing stories about African American places, people, events and things with Minnesota ties.