Insight News

Feb 11th

Celebrate Sesquicentennial, Black History Month with the Minnesota Historical Society

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As the Minnesota Historical Society celebrates the 150th anniversary of Minnesota statehood in 2008, along with Black History Month in February, we take note of the proud heritage of Black Minnesotans. As the Minnesota Historical Society celebrates the 150th anniversary of Minnesota statehood in 2008, along with Black History Month in February, we take note of the proud heritage of Black Minnesotans.

The presence of African Americans in what is now Minnesota dates back to the earliest non-Indian settlement of the area, when Pierre Bonga plied the fur trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the 1820s and '30s, a number of African Americans lived at Fort Snelling as slaves of officers. Some stayed on, including James Thompson, who arrived at the fort in 1827 and became the only Black member of the St. Paul Old Settlers Association. A census taken after the Minnesota Territory was created in 1849 listed 40 individuals of African descent. By the time Minnesota became a state in 1858, the number approached 250. One-hundred-four Black men served in regiments during the Civil War.

Several figures portraying prominent Black Minnesotans appear regularly in performances as part of the Society's History Player program. They are only some of the Black Minnesotans whose stories are recorded and interpreted by the Society.

• Emily Goodridge Grey (1833-1916), who along with her husband Ralph Toyer Grey, was among the earliest African-American settlers in St. Anthony, which became the city of Minneapolis. (Mill City Museum)
• Thomas Lyles (1843-1920), a community activist, entrepreneur and St. Paul businessman who owned a newspaper, barbershop and funeral home. (History Center)
• Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961), an inventor of automatic refrigeration systems for long-haul trucks, portable x-ray machine and box office ticketing machines. (Coming to the History Center in Spring 2008)
• Dred Scott (1795-1858), a slave living at Fort Snelling in the 1830s, who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford, of 1857. (Coming to Historic Fort Snelling in Summer 2008)

Beginning in the summer of 2008, the interpretive programming at Historic Fort Snelling will include the role of Black slaves at the fort. A costumed interpreter will explain to visitors the experiences of Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and other African Americans. Dred Scott's years at the fort, located in a free territory, became an important factor in his attempt to achieve freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 decision to deny his appeal is viewed as one of the direct causes of the Civil War.

The Society offers many online resources for the study and interpretation of Black history. The History Topics section at includes pages on Dred Scott, the Duluth lynching of 1920, NAACP leader and St. Paul native Roy Wilkins, engineer and inventor Frederick McKinley Jones, the Rondo neighborhood and its disappearance due to the construction of Interstate Highway 94 and the African-American civil rights movement. All of the pages offer secondary sources for further study. Many of these topics are also featured in the new exhibit "MN150" at the Minnesota History Center.

Selected stories about Black members of Minnesota's Greatest Generation also are available online at, including that of Wilbert LeRoy Bartlett, who was drafted in 1943 and served with an Engineer Aviation Battalion in France.
The Minnesota Historical Society Press has published numerous books about African-American history and Black Minnesotans including "African Americans in Minnesota," by David Vassar Taylor; "A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota," by William D. Green; "Cap Wiggington: An Architectural Legacy in Ice and Snow," by David Vassar Taylor and Paul Clifford Larson; "Days of R

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