The McGill Report
2.17.2003

From Bonga to Brown, the Black Experience in Minnesota

Rochester, MN -- The first famous black Minnesotan was an explorer of the Northwest Territory with a French name who was born to West Indies slaves, built a fur-trading empire with British trappers and married a Chippewa woman.

That man, Pierre Bonga, was obviously remarkable. Yet he sired two sons, Stephen and George, who eclipsed their father in achievements and fame. The sons were explorers, translators and traders in the mid-19th century wilderness of the U.S. Northwest, renowned especially for their skill as negotiators between the native Indians and the French, British and American entrepreneurs and soldiers who had designs on the land.

George Bonga in particular is remembered today, thanks in part to a remarkable photographic portrait from 1870 that shows a black man of radiant Lincolnesque charisma dressed in a shiny bowler, black vest, bow tie, tails and Indian moccasins. A literate man, Bonga was well-known in the U.S. capital for his wilderness and negotiating skills, and his personal letters add a rare depth of detail to a distant time.

"There is something smoldering in the breast of the Indian, that will not take much to set it ablaze," he wrote in a letter in 1863. "If that should ever take place, no one can foretell how far the flames will extend."

The extraordinary Bonga clan begins the recorded history of African-Americans in Minnesota, and they do so on several symbolic levels. Beginning as slaves -- Pierre Bonga was owned by a British officer and freed in 1787 -- they found success in Minnesota but only against the backdrop of a difficult life physically and psychologically. Although they began as outsiders, they maximized the opportunity that their in-between social status gave to them and became peacemakers and businessmen between two sides.

They suffered setbacks along with their accomplishments, another familiar pattern in the black experience in Minnesota from the late 19th century to today.

Dred Scott Story

The name most frequently associated with Minnesota's black history is Dred Scott, the slave of a military surgeon posted at Fort Snelling in the 1840s. While living at Fort Snelling, Scott married another slave, Harriet Robinson, and the couple had two children. When their owner died, Scott sued for his family's freedom, citing their years of residence in the free state of Minnesota. A decade later, the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which infamously held that as a slave, Scott was not a U.S. citizen and therefore could not be freed.

Despite that ruling, the abolition of slavery, and more particularly the question of whether freed slaves should have the right to vote, played a major role in the politics behind Minnesota's application for statehood, which occurred during the Dred Scott era. The newly formed Republican Party, which held its first convention in St. Paul in 1855, strongly favored the abolition of slavery and "non-white suffrage," as it was then called.

Minnesota became a state only after Republicans, at the territory's first constitutional convention in 1857, bargained away their abolition platform in return for Democratic concessions that allowed a state constitution to be passed. That compromise paved the way for Minnesota's ultimate acceptance into the Union a year later in 1858.

Still, advocates of non-white suffrage in Minnesota continued to aggressively seek amendments to the state constitution. After two failures, such an amendment was passed, and in 1868, the right to vote was extended in Minnesota to males of African descent, to "mixed bloods" older than 21, and to "civilized" Indians. Minnesota thus became one of the few states to voluntarily extend rights to blacks, two years before the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution mandated non-white suffrage.

Among southern blacks, including many newly freed slaves after the Civil War, Minnesota became known as a good place to migrate.

Their numbers, however, were hardly great. A tripling of the state's black population during the Civil War years, from 1860 to 1870, raised the number to only 759. By 1890, that number had increased sixfold.

Population Growth

During the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the black population in Minnesota, as in many other northern states, increased when employers recruited southern blacks to take jobs left open by whites pressed into service. By 1920, the state's black population had increased to 8,809.

The years between 1950 and 1970, the period of the "Great Migration," saw Minnesota's biggest influx of blacks from the south. In that 20-year span, the black population in Minneapolis grew 436 percent, and St. Paul's 388 percent, while the state's total black population rose 1,583 percent to 34,868.

This vast population shift, combined with discriminatory racial practices and the sluggish implementation of new civil rights laws, led to the explosive conditions that culminated in race riots, the rise of Black Nationalist and terror groups like the Black Panthers, and other violent race protests in the 1960s. Minnesota saw some of these problems, such as riots on Labor Day weekend of 1968 and a student takeover of Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota in 1969, but it was less severe than in other states.

Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, suggests that the special character of the black migrant's experience in Minnesota, as compared to other destinations in the north, accounts for this.

Black Communities

"Black communities here tended to develop more slowly than in other cities," Rachleff said. In part, that's because Minnesota never had the manufacturing jobs available in northern cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. Instead, black migrants to Minnesota tended to get service jobs, such as at hotels and, especially, on the railroads, the biggest historical employer of blacks in the state. The fact that railroad jobs often took black men away from home for long periods also encouraged women in black communities here to become self-sufficient.

All these factors led to more stable, middle-class and women-led black communities in Minnesota than in other northern cities, Rachleff said.

The unusually large number of black women who played leadership roles in the civic and political life of mid-century Minnesota blacks testifies to the theory's accuracy. The two most influential social aid groups formed to help low-income blacks and new migrants to Minnesota were the Phyllis Wheatley House of Minneapolis, led by W. Gertrude Brown, and the Hallie Q. Brown Community House of St. Paul, led by I. Myrtle Carden.

The civil rights activist Nellie Stone Johnson became the most famous black woman in Minnesota in 1934, when she organized the movement that won union membership for black workers at the St. Paul Athletic Club. Born in Lakeville, Minn., in 1905, Johnson continued her social activism through a long life, such as helping to broker the 1944 deal with Hubert Humphrey that merged the Farmer Labor Party with the Democratic Party to form the DFL. She ran an alterations shop in Minneapolis until the mid-1990s and died last April 2.

The generally muted racial unrest in Minnesota had one horrific exception early in the century, the lynching in Duluth of three young black men -- Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie -- on June 15, 1920. That evening, a crowd of several thousand people stormed the police station, broke down walls and bars to seize the three men arrested on trumped-up rape charges, and hanged them from a downtown lamppost.

Latest Wave

Historians such as Michael Fedo, who wrote a book entitled "The Lynchings in Duluth," attribute that sudden eruption of racial violence to the xenophobic postwar climate in the United States and to alarmist demagoguery by prominent Minnesotans aimed at socialist groups, especially the Nonpartisan League. Local employers, like the Duluth mill of U.S. Steel, had also recently raised tensions by recruiting southern blacks to work for below-market wages.

Since 1980, Minnesota has experienced its most recent wave of black migration directly from Africa. Immigrants from Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Eritrea and Ethiopia have moved to the state, often as resettled war refugees. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the state counts among its residents 167,857 African-Americans, of whom 34,469 (or 20.5 percent) were born in Africa.

The number of African-born immigrants in Minnesota has increased sharply in the past three years, however. Also, the census tends to undercount recently arrived immigrants. So it's likely that up to one in four African-Americans in Minnesota today came to the state with fresh memories of civil wars and famines in Africa as opposed to having now-distant, if still stinging, memories of Southern slavery and the U.S. Civil War.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report