Category Archives: Women’s History

BookWomen at 20: Celebrating the elegance of thriving

Surviving is important, but thriving is elegant ~ Maya Angelou

Though survival may have been on their minds when they launched Minnesota Women’s Press in 1985, Glenda Martin and Mollie Hoben have thrived – elegantly! In fact, they have just launched a celebration of their more recent twenty years as founders and leaders of The BookWomen Center for Feminist Reading, which is both a part and an outgrowth of Minnesota Women’s Press. The best known project of the Center is publication and global distribution of BookWomen, a bi-monthly journal designed to create “a readers’ community for those who love women’s words”.

Glenda and Mollie continue to thrive through their unstinting and endlessly creative work to give voice to women – women who write great books, women who reshape the political landscape, women who merit a platform to share their pain, women who are redefining the world of art, women who simply have much to say about literature and living.

Their tradition of amplifying the voices of others lives on as Mollie and Glenda celebrate another milestone.   The next issue of BookWomen will mark the completion of twenty years’ publication to inviting readers to share their thoughts. Questions to readers affirm their sincere commitment to learn and share – and thus thrive:

  • How did you get connected to BookWomen, and why have you stuck with us?
  • How has your own reading; life changed in the past 20 years”
  • What memorable book or other have you learned about from BookWomen?

For  two decades BookWomen readers have learned about great reads, personal experiences of readers and writers, literary news and views, updates on Reading on the Road retreats that have attracted vagabonds and locals at significant literary sites from Taos to the Coast of Maine to Iceland to Oaxaca, Mexico and England’s Lake District.

As one fortunate enough to have known the trajectory of Mollie’s and Glenda’s thriving since MWP was still a dream it has occurred to me how important it is for younger and newer followers of these women to know more about the narrative. We need to learn or remember the times and the impact of their commitment to share a critical light on the words of women – through Minnesota Women’s Press, later BookWomen and The Bookwomen Center.

The good news is that the narrative is preserved in print and in oral and video interviews they have generously shared. My hope is that readers of this blog will learn for the first time – or recall – more about Mollie and Glenda as they have shared their story.

  • My favorite interview with Mollie and Glenda was conducted in 1997 by beloved Minnesota poet Joanne Hart as part of the Northern Lights and Insights video series.  The interview  incorporates stories of the day when the MWP entrepreneurs not only published the newspaper but also hosted several reading groups and operated a bookstore (on Raymond off University) and a unique library of feminist literature contributed by readers and supporters of the enterprise. It is a forever treasure!(http://reflections.mndigital.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16022coll38/id/80)

Helpful histories of Minnesota Women’s Press were published when founders celebrated significant anniversaries of the Press. Here are some good backgrounder or refresher reads:

Back in the day, decades before the birth of The BookWomen Center for Feminist Reading, Virginia Wolfe lamented that “women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” (A Room of One’s Own, 1929)

In recent decades the “creative force” of women has indeed harnessed itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” Through it all Glenda and Mollie have thrived by shedding light on the power of women’s words to “overcharge the capacity of bricks and mortar.”

 

 

 

 

Celebrating women religious as visionary agents of change

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  Mahatma Gandhi

As noted earlier on this blog March 8-14 was National Catholic Sisters Week. At random moments during the week I struggled to think of how to write something about the week and about the role of women religious, their history, their contributions, their leadership the challenge to achieve social justice in so many fields. Try as I might I couldn’t focus on a general theme that encompasses the enormity and complexity of the narrative – or that expresses my personal experience. The common thread, I’m finally beginning to realize, is the ability and willingness of the women religious I’ve known to embrace change. Thus, post -National Catholic Sisters Week tribute:

The change among women religious that everyone remembers is the shift that most community members made from restrictive habits to modern dress indicative of their worldly role. While memorable, that change is but a clue to the substantive change within the minds and hearts of the Sisters.

What the visible change indicated, in fact, was manifestation of a far more profound change in the role of women religious, a change credited in a 2011 “Essay in Theology” by Richard McBrien, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame University.   In his essay on “Women Religious’ embrace of Vatican II change commendable” McBrien notes the several changes happening in the Catholic Church during the 50’s and 60’s; he specifically cites “abolition of outmoded customs, the modification of habits and increased attention the professional education of sisters.” As a consequence, McBride observes,

Vatican II urged religious communities to return to their biblical roots and their founding charisms and to develop a greater measure of engagement with the modern world. Women religious, however, responded with more energy, creativity and enthusiasm than church officials anticipated, to the chagrin of more traditional nuns and ultra-conservative Catholics – the very type of both constituencies that applauded, and even instigated, the recent investigation of U.S. sisters and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious….”

While McBrien focuses on the impact of Vatican II, my experience is far more personal and actually pre-dates his post-Vatican II reflections. What follows is a stream-of-consciousness collage of vignettes that remind me – and I hope illustrate — my story of a lifetime of experience with women religious who, as individuals and communities, have not so much responded to change but have taken the lead to make change happen.

Some personal memories and observations may illustrate a common theme:

  • As a wet-behind-the-ears freshman at the College of St. Catherine in the early 60’s my first major assignment was to write a paper-of-consequence on the topic “The Idea of Progress”, a mighty challenge. Though I’m sure the paper was painfully naïve, it shaped my frame of reference for life.
  • Later in my college years, still in the early 60’s, I recall a professor heading a bus tour to St John’s University to hear the controversial theologian Hans Kung, whom we found not only inspiring, but very handsome……
  • In my first grown-up job I led a national Catholic college student organization that joined the struggle for civil rights at the federal level, a role that involved hordes of youth in the struggle for equal rights. There it was often the Sisters who supported not only the cause but us ardent young protesters – of every denominational persuasion – who knew little of the how’s and why’s of the movement.
  • Again, during the 60’s I spent endless hours learning about the techniques of educational technology. It was not until I saw a brilliant Sister using computer assisted learning for a long-distance discussion of the depths of Thomas Merton’s writing that I understood the possibilities.
  • I had the same experience when I observed the leadership of women religious in revamping the health care delivery system. Women religious took a visible lead in the advance of alternative medicine, personal health responsibility, home and hospice care and other evolving efforts in the health care arena. Consistently, their focus was not so much on techniques but on human needs and possibilities.
  • More recently, as a staffer for a national open government advocacy coalition my job has been to reach out to other like-minded groups working in agriculture, environment, food, climate, health, to grapple with cataclysmic change. Whether it was sustainable agriculture or hunger, immigration or climate change I found women religious not in the headlines but in the trenches, seeing each issue as it relates to social justice.
  • Today hope for progress in a global context much of that hope is directed to the Millennium Development Goals. Again, women religious stand out as a united network committed to understanding and working to achieve those goals locally, nationally and globally. The quest for justice has inspired women religious of all ages and religious communities to share their knowledge and experience in the slow and steady struggle to make real the vision reflected in the MDGs.
  • Finally, as I have come to know the rank-and-file advocates of change in so many sectors, I have observed just how colleagues were educated by the Sisters and inspired by their willingness to assume personal and institutional responsibility as change-makers in the relentless reach for progress.

These are simply personal memories of the Sisters I have known as teachers, colleagues and visionaries, just a few facets of a beautifully complex history. Still, the lesson I learned many decades ago is that there are many paths to progress. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Friends and Neighbors Celebrate Sisters’ “Quaquicentennial”

Unaccustomed as I am to being early for any occasion, this recognition of National Catholic Sisters Week (NCSW) begins early with a heartfelt celebration of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi of Little Falls, Minnesota. Today, March 1, 2016, the Sisters join with their neighbors and friends to celebrate their 125th year of serving the community in Little Falls, Morrison County and beyond.

First, a word about NCSW – it’s actually next week, March 8-14, 2016. Now in its third year NCSW is scheduled as a key component of National Women’s History Month. The intent is to honor women religious through a series of events that “instruct, enlighten and bring greater focus to the lives of these incredible women.” Learn more about NCSW at http://www.nationalcatholicsistersweek.org/about.php

For a glimpse at the work of today’s women religious there is no better example than the Franciscans celebrating in Little Falls today. These women have been a major part of my family for as long as I can remember (which is many decades) and many decades before that. My beloved aunt, Sister Mary Stephen Treacy was a Franciscan whom I remember best for her infectious laugh, for the chocolate milk she could always find for special guests, and as a legend in the community. Three of my cousins followed her lead – Sister Mary Leone Furnstahl, a teacher, died in 1998. Today Sister Therese Furnstahl and Sister Anne Furnstahl continue to serve a broadly defined community in myriad ways.

Today thoughts are with the Sisters and the countless people they have served for 125 years. I even learned a new word to describe the year–long celebration – this is the Franciscans’ “quaquicentennial.” The year is highlighted by two significant dates – today, March 1, is Founding Day, marking the 1891 date when sixteen women established the community in Belle Prairie, Minnesota. The other key date is October 4, the Feast of Saint Francis Assisi, patron of the community and namesake of Pope Francis, a fact that brings both pleasure and renewed inspiration to the Sisters.

Today the 129 members of the community serve in countless ministries including home health care, teaching, catechetical work, missionary work in South America and more. The Franciscan Center has also built a reputation for hospitality as it opens the doors to the community and visitors from afar. Neighbors gather at the Center regularly to socialize, exercise, worship, garden, to conduct the business of the community and to learn.   Conference attendees and other visitors find respite – not to mention great meals and a warm welcome — in the gracious setting.

Scholars visit the Franciscan Center on a regular basis to learn about the history of the community and the area preserved in the Franciscan archives and to reflect on the magnificent architecture of the Chapel and other historic buildings on the grounds.

Members of the public are welcome to join the Franciscans as they continue to celebrate their “quaquicentennial” throughout the year. Activities range from an Open House on Saturday July 9, featuring musicians from the St. Francis Music Center, to a tour and tractor or horse-drawn wagon tour, to a September 30 liturgical performance by David Haas, Marty Haugen and Michael Joncas.

The “Little Falls Franciscans” offer a glimpse and just one example of 21st Century women religious meeting the challenge of change with grit and grace!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archives reveal untold stories of African American Women Religious

 

As I was deciding among the many ideas waiting to be explored during the waning days of African American history month I happened upon AOTUS (http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus), the blog posted by David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S. In his recent Black History Month post Ferreiro wrote about a number of “hidden treasures”, archives that reveal the narrative of African Americans; included on his brief list was the following

The Oblate Sisters of Providence is the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. It was the work of a French-born Sulpician priest and four women, who were part of the Caribbean refugee colony which began arriving in Baltimore in the late 18th century. The order founded the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States and is still educating children in Baltimore. A grant from the NHPRC helped the Oblate Sisters process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection of approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850s to 2003, including this touching image of orphans under their care.

A quick search revealed that the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) – which coincidentally comes under the federal authority of the Archivist — had recently awarded a grant of $25,830 to the Oblate Sisters of Providence for an Historic Photograph Project. The goal of the project was “to process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection” of the Sisters. The inventory had identified approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850’s to 2003. A bit more probing disclosed a remarkable bit of the history of African Americans and of women religious in the U.S.

Though the Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first successful order of Roman Catholic Sisters of African descent, there was an earlier community. An earlier community, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, later known as the Sisters of Loretto, formed in Kentucky in 1812 with the encouragement of a Belgian priest, Father Charles Nericnkx. When the priest died that early community dissolved.

A short time later, in 1829, Jacques Hector Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, took a similar approach to proselytizing. Born in France, Joubert worked in Haiti before the Revolution; he escaped to the U.S., specifically to Baltimore, where he became a Sulpician priest. Assigned to serve French speaking Haitian Catholics at St. Mary’s chapel he grew concerned with his young parishioners’ problems learning to read the Catechism. His thoughts turned to founding a school – while his circle expanded to include two women of African descent who were already running a small school.

The two women who evinced an interest in consecrating their lives to God were soon joined by two other young women with a similar commitment. And thus was formed the nucleus of the nation’s first religious order for Black women. Eventually, the four novices took their vows and the first order of women religious of African descent was officially founded in 1829; the superior of the community was Elizabeth Lange, a native of Cuba.  On October 2, 1831 Pope Gregory XVI blessed the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The Sisters opened a small school for Haitian children where French was the spoken language and the essential tool for learning the tenets of their Catholic faith. In time the school grew, eventually leading to the founding of The Baltimore School for Colored Girls in 1828. Renamed St. Frances Academy the school remains as the oldest continuously operating school for African American Catholic children in the United States. As the school continued to grow, the Sisters bought more property and built a new chapel.  This chapel was significant as the first chapel open to African American Catholics living in Baltimore.

Things went well until the early 1840’s when the community faced a number of problems, including the death of their original supporter, Father Joubert, in 1843. Because the primary work of the Joubert’s order, the Sulpicians, had always been the education of men, the community decided to no longer minister to the Oblates. The school languished, as did the Oblate community. The Oblates asked permission from the Bishop to beg on the streets to support their community. One of the original founders, Mother Theresa Duchemen, left the community to move to Michigan where she eventually helped found the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The times were difficult for the fledgling community. For some time, the Oblates worked at a church served by the Redemptorists where their attention shifted to serving the city’s growing German community. It was at this juncture that a second priest, Father Thaddeus Anwander, helped the community restore a degree of financial stabaility. Anwander eventually came to be known as the second founder of the Oblates.

The struggling community next came under the directorship of the Jesuits; for the first time they began missions outside of Baltimore, including missions in Philadelphia and New Orleans. Then, in 1871, the Sisters faced yet another change when the Josephite Fathers and Brothers assumed directorship. The mission of the Josephites was to administer to African American Catholics; in this era the Oblates expanded, adding additional schools and orphanages.

In the early 1900’s the Oblates, no longer under the directorship of the Josephites, grew and adjusted to changing needs. By the 1950 there were over 300 Oblate Sisters of Providence teaching and otherwise meeting the needs of African American children. They opened foreign missions, the first of which in Havana was followed by seven Cuban missions; all were closed in the early 1960’s with the regime of Fidel Castro.

Today the approximately 80 Oblate Sisters continue to operate their southwest Baltimore motherhouse known as Our Lady of Mount Providence. The site has housed several missions over the years including Mt. Providence Junior College (1963-1966), administrative offices, and the archives of the community. Today the Oblates serve missions in Baltimore, Miami, Buffalo, NY as well as cities in Costa Rica.

For much more information, including the photographic archives, visit the Archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence Library, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore, MD 21227, 401-242 8500, osparchives@oblatesisters.com. https://www.facebook.com/Oblate.Sisters.of.Providence/photos_stream

 

 

Minnesotan named among women leaders in public service and government

Some months ago I noted in passing that the theme for Women’s History Month, March 2016, is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.”   Immediately I thought of the scores of Minnesota women in public service who deserve heaps of praise and thanks, not just during Women’s History Month but every day in every way. I mentally checked off elected officials, office workers, fire fighters, academics, health care professionals, teachers, clerks, judges, librarians, police officers and countless other women who work with honor and energy to serve the public good. These women form a huge percentage of government workers who wage Minnesota’s never-ending struggle to “form a more perfect union.”

With fondness, my thoughts traveled back to an earlier time when Governor Rudy Perpich intentionally and strategically led a relentless effort to put the “action” in affirmative action.

In this reflective – and appreciative — mood I perused the list of this year’s Women’s History Month honorees, an august selection of exceptional women from throughout the country. In 2016 the honor, conferred by the National Women’s History Project, celebrates women who have devoted their lives to public service and government.

First on that list (which admittedly was alphabetical) is Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ of St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1983 Governor Perpich – and Sister Mary Madonna – made headlines when the Governor appointed her as the first woman and first non-physician to serve as Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.

As was his practice, Governor Perpich placed his confidence in a strong and proven candidate. Sister Mary Madonna had served as President and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis for twenty years (1962 to 1982.)  Her tenure as Commissioner of Health extended from 1983 to 1991, by which time she had established a solid record. Her gender and MSW (as opposed to MD) degrees were no longer the high points of the laudatory remarks by which she was introduced to health care administrators and young people entering the fields of health care and public service.

Sponsors of the national honoree designation underscore just a sampling of the challenges Sister Mary Madonna encountered in her role as Commissioner of Health. She is praised for “successfully addressing smoking cessation and AIDS prevention.” Underscoring her efforts to stop widespread smoking and ready access to tobacco, the selectors write: “Sister Ashton helped pass landmark legislation outlawing smoking in public places and on public property. Testifying for days against the tobacco industry, her success on behalf of the state of Minnesota started a nationwide movement.” (Remember that this was “back in the 80’s”)

Sister Mary Madonna Ashton joins a company of remarkable women who have committed their work lives to public service and government. These women, some living, others deceased, are being honored in 2016 for their unstinting efforts “to form a more perfect union.” The 2016 honorees are these:

Nadine Smith, (1965–present) LGBT civil rights activist and Executive Director of Equality Florida.

Dorothy C. Stratton (1899-2006) WWII Director of the SPARS (Coast Guard women’s reserve) and Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of America.

Bernice Sandler (1928-present) Women’s rights activist, known as the “Godmother of Title IX”

Karen Narasaki (1958-present) Civil and human rights leader, Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Nancy Grace Roman (1925-present) Created a space astronomy program at NASA, known as the “Mother of Hubble”

Judy Hart (1941-present) National Park Founding Superintendent of Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park and Women’s Rights National Historical Park.

Isabel Gonzalez (1882-1971) Champion of Puerto Ricans securing American citizenship.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes (1928-present) National Organization for Women co-founder and first woman attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission General Council’s Office.

Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995) WWII Director of the Women’s Army Corps and first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Barbara Mikulski (1937-present) Senator from Maryland and longest serving woman in the U.S. Congress.

Betty Mae Tiger Jumper (1923-2001). First woman Chief of the Seminole Tribe and presidential advisor.

Inez Milholland Boissevain (1886-1916) Women’s Suffrage leader and martyr.

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (1914-1999) Civil Rights organizer and leader of the Little Rock school integration.

Ella Tambussi Grasso (1919-1981) Governor of Connecticut, first woman U.S. governor elected in her own right.

Suzan Shown Harjo (1945-present) Native American public policy advocate and journalist.

More information about Womens History Month  at http://nwhp.org/womens-history-month-2016

 

 

 

Minnesota Spin on African American History Month

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Polanie Club archives tell stories of Polish women in Minnesota

A few years ago I was introduced to, intrigued by – and soon wrote about – the Polanie Club, a Northeast Minneapolis organization founded in 1927 by twelve women of Polish descent. (https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/polanie-club/) I enjoyed learning about the ongoing work of the organization and have followed the organization ever since.

The stated mission of the Polanie Club was to preserve and broaden knowledge of Polish culture while encouraging local Polish residents to pursue higher education. The work of the women of the Polonai Club has been bold and enduring. Members of the Polanie Club have sponsored scholarships, published books of fiction and nonfiction and a cookbook of Polish recipes which turned out to be a successful fundraiser for the organization.

Thus I was concerned to learn recently that the Polanie Club will soon dissolve. The membership – and thus the energy of the organization – is waning.

The really good news is that the archives of the Polanie Club, an incredible treasure trove of local, ethnic and women’s history, will remain an accessible and curated resource for scholars and anyone who has an interest in the history and stories of Polish immigrants. The Polanie Club archives will become part of the Immigration History Research Center collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

As a complement to the IHRC archives, the Minneapolis History Collection will continue to curate the files of the Polanie Club. That collection includes information about programs from the 1930’s through the 1960’s as well as various clippings about activities, publications and news of the Club. These files supplement, or may on occasion duplicate, the U of M archival collection.

The official archives at the Immigration History Center, supplemented by the materials at the Minneapolis History Collection, will provide a robust history of this unique organization. Appreciation is due to the members and leaders of the Polanie Club who have preserved the record and who will now share their history for posterity.