Minnesota has seen the good, bad and ugly in race relations

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Reflections from my Notebook

In the 50 years since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., racial harmony and justice had seemed to be improving in the United States— at least until recently when it all seemed to go backward with emboldened white supremacists, racist acts of violence and insensitive comments by well-known people who should know better. It’s as if people have forgotten history with its examples of how cruel people can be in subjugating people who are different and how some individuals risked everything to rise above common prejudices to champion humanity, even if their actions didn’t benefit them personally.

Minnesota is generally thought to be a tolerant state, but it has had its share of problems. However, those problems, and solutions, aren’t always known today because the history is sketchy since racism wasn’t often overtly expressed as it was in the South.

Researchers, including local residents, looking back at past relationships between people of different races in Minnesota are finding good and bad. We’ve probably all experienced racist behavior in interactions with people we know at least once, but, on the other hand, our state has often reacted swiftly and compassionately most of the time in response to major social injustices.

Black people have resided here even before Minnesota became a state.  Some of them roamed the frontier working in the fur trades, interacting with American Indians, French merchants and others. However, our history shows slave hunters also roamed the streets of St. Paul. Even our great historic landmark, Fort Snelling, included numerous slaves as servants for military officers.

Perhaps the dichotomy is most vivid in a book, “Degrees of Freedom,” by William D. Green, a professor of history at Augsburg College. A scene in Green’s book shows the varying forces: He had just given a rousing speech to a packed assembly in St. Paul, but Frederick Douglass, confidant to the Great Emancipator and conscience of the Republican Party, was denied a hotel room because he was black. This was Minnesota in 1873, four years after the state had approved black suffrage — a state where “freedom” meant being unshackled from slavery but not social restrictions, where “equality” meant access to the ballot but not to a restaurant downtown.

That Minnesota granted suffrage to blacks by popular vote was rare among states in our country, stated Green. Still, he found racism “written between the lines of early Minnesota history, rather than spoken directly,” he told MinnPost, an online news site.

Minnesota has had some ugly instances of racism, including a 1920 lynching of three circus workers in Duluth who appear to have been wrongly accused of rape. The following year, the state passed an anti-lynching law.

Closer to home, there is evidence that people in our area were in the forefront of the abolitionist movement as it appears Rushford was part of the Underground Railroad, which aided slaves escaping from the South.

Geographic location was one advantage for Rushford. The Underground Railroad often used water vessels that traveled up the Mississippi River. Since the Root River connects to the Mighty Mississippi, the continued movement of escaped slaves could easily occur.

Another factor is that Rushford was founded by people thought to be Quakers, the religious group that started the Underground Railroad. Also, the wife of one of the founders was a known abolitionist from Ohio.

More recently, when remodeling a co-founder’s historic home in Rushford, workers fund a safe room that could have been used to hide slaves. Other locations also could have been used, including the limestone caves near the house.

Abolitionists, even in free states and territories, risked their livelihoods and even their lives, so it has been tough uncovering this history. However, three Rushford-Peterson High School students — Janet Darr, Kim Thach and Jodee Thorn — compiled research on the house for a past project, earning them top honors at the Minnesota State History Day contest.

The Star Tribune also published an article, “Following the track of Minnesota’s Underground Railroad,” in 2016 that included an interview with Dan Ziebell, who grew up near Hart, just outside of Rushford. He recalled a rough trail running through the property that everyone called the Slave Road. A neighbor’s barn, with a stone foundation, included a secret room to harbor fugitives and was accessible only through a hayloft latch.

The Fremont store, built in 1856, also has a connection. L.C. Rice, who built the store, was impressed with an overnight visitor, James C. Fremont, an abolitionist and explorer who was the first presidential candidate for the Republican party, which had a platform that was firmly anti-slavery. Rice promptly renamed his store and the town’s post office, indicating he may have been a supporter of the anti-slavery movement, according to a history compiled by Laura Deering and Donna Hansen that is being published in a series in the Tri-County Record of Rushford.

Rushford, and other communities in the area, also have loose ties to a colorful personality in Minnesota history when Jane Swisshelm, who became one of the most recognized women in the country, moved to St. Cloud where she had relatives, Deering and Hansen report. Swisshelm had to flee her hometown in Pennsylvania where she was an abolitionist who also helped slaves escape from Kentucky. When neighbors learned of her activities, they told her they were going to burn down her house and tar-and-feather her.

Life didn’t get much easier in Minnesota at first. Plantation owners often traveled to northern Minnesota to escape the heat of the South during summers.  Plantation owner friends of Sylvanus Lowry, a Southern slaveholder who had settled in the area and later became a Minnesota senator, often brought their slaves with them.

That enraged Swisshelm, who started an anti-slavery printing press for publications that specifically called out Lowry in her articles. A gang of thugs broke into her office, smashing the printing press and leaving a note that more harm would come if Swisshelm continued to write articles against slavery or Lowry, who had become the first mayor of St. Cloud, according to Deering and Hansen.

Shortly after that incident, Swisshelm departed on a southeastern Minnesota speaking tour with an anti-slavery mission. Her tour included many cities around Rushford: Rochester, Preston and Chatfield.

Later, Deering and Hansen reported, the good folks of Minnesota bought her a new printing press. Swisshelm’s bravery and brilliant writing skills paid off as she is known as one of the nation’s first female political reporters and a pioneer among women in publishing newspapers.

History is a powerful force in shaping views on modern social issues, if we choose to remember. It can reveal a disturbing past that people too soon forget and it can illuminate examples of brave souls who, in an effort to seek justice, selflessly risked more than most of us would ever consider today.