Why This Started in Minneapolis

Historians in the News
tags: racism, inequality, urban history, policing


CityLab spoke with five experts on race, culture, and state and local history to understand how they’ve experienced these divides, and how to bridge them. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

William D. Green, history professor at Augsburg University: Back in 1860, even though Minnesota was free soil and had in its constitution a ban against slavery, slaveholders would come to Minnesota to vacation.

Abolitionists brought one slave woman to court and freed her, and what resulted was a riot in the city. For the next four or five months, neighbors in Minneapolis walked the streets with loaded weapons, waiting for their neighbors to provoke them.

And what averted that pending crisis was when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and started the Civil War. Minnesotans shifted their focus away from their neighbors — what got them to change their focus was joining up. Minnesota was the first state to send volunteers into the Union Army.

So you have this strange situation, where people were willing to defend a slaveholder’s right to hold a slave in Minnesota, despite what the state law said, and they were also willing to join up and fight to preserve the Union.

Daniel Bergin, documentary filmmaker for Twin Cities PBS: This paradox goes to the very founding of the state: the colonization and the displacement of Dakota and Ojibwe, which is its own complex and deep and insidious story. But in terms of the African-American experience, even after the territorial period, there was this tension around abolitionist culture from the New Englanders who had largely made up Minneapolis at the time, and the businessmen who were seated in St. Paul.

Literally, when they were founding the state, there were two constitutions: One that made a statement against slavery. And then another that didn’t.

Green: After the war, Minnesotans tried three times to pass a law that would extend the voting rights to black men. And on the third attempt, they succeeded — before the 15th Amendment was ratified. Just months after that, the legislature passed a law saying that any school system in Minnesota that segregated on the basis of race would lose all state funding. And then they also began to see black people serve on juries, which was something that had never happened in Minnesota. This is all before 1870.

And then right after that, nothing happened. It was like the progressives and the friends of black people took their feet off the pedal and began to coast in complacence on their good deeds. Even though Minnesota would later pass two or three public accommodations laws banning banning segregation and discrimination in public settings, you still had discrimination being carried out by white shopkeepers and restaurateurs and whatnot, denying or harassing black patronage.

What that represents is that policymakers did high-minded things, but they did not push down that sense of enlightenment into the body politic. Policymakers and the body politic lived in parallel worlds with regard to race relations.

By the end of the century, the reputation of Minnesota across the nation was that Minnesota at least was racially tolerant, but what was not being addressed was the fact that the black population in Minnesota is exceedingly small. And what that meant was there were not a lot of black people around to test the social customs that permitted segregation to continue, and discrimination to exist.


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