The surprising black history of Southeast Minnesota


Submitted photo Calvin Simmons once resided in Houston, Minn. He is shown with his wife and children.
By : 
LAURA DEERING

The names of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King likely sound familiar. But what about Lewis W. Pinkney, Joseph Taylor, and Calvin Simmons? The last three lived right here in Southeast Minnesota, and they too made history.

As we celebrate February’s black history month, we should honor contributions by early black settlers in Rushford and its nearby communities.

Lewis W. Pinkney – Rushford, Minn.

Casting a long silver shadow over Highway 43 in the late afternoon this time of year is the Rushford Lutheran Church. The steeple silhouette touches the property of the original high school, bonding the two buildings together. Both were built in 1906, and one of the construction workers was Lewis W. Pinkney.

The Rushford Lutheran Church’s 150-year anniversary book mentions “an African-American man was also hired as part of the construction crew....he also worked on the schoolhouse construction before moving south again.”

Pinkney’s contributions to Rushford’s landscape remains today. Take a stroll from the Church steps in any direction and you will find his other structures, including the Episcopal Church and Rectory House. His construction career, spanning from 1899 to 1907, is one of the many threads in Rushford’s tapestry.

While still a young man Pinkney, a son of former slaves, achieved his dream of receiving an education, and was listed a “student” in the 1905 Minnesota census. During his youth in Florida, Pinckney was denied an education due to black code laws.

After Rushford’s building boom, Pinkney moved back to Jacksonville, Fla., and became a gardener. He married and had several children. In the 1930s, some of his offspring worked at St. Vincent hospital in Jacksonville. Currently, St. Vincent’s has mutual collaborations with Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic.

Joseph Taylor – Brownsville Minn.

Before Minnesota was a state, Joseph Taylor resided in Brownsville, Minn., where he worked as a newspaper pressman. Taylor’s journey to our corner of the state was accelerated when, in 1837, he witnessed the murder of his employer, the Rev. Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois.

Lovejoy owned an anti-slavery newspaper. One night a violent pro-slavery mob set fire to his office and killed the reverend. Watching from afar was Taylor, who saw where the crowd threw the printing press into the river. He later assisted with its retrieval. The infamous printing press and Taylor settled in Brownsville, Minn.

Taylor was considered the best pressman along the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa, to St. Paul, Minn. Often, he would stop at a nearby river hamlet to give the local printer a rest. Given his generous personality, Taylor added to Brownsville prominence along the river corridor. Taylor must have found a deep satisfaction as he was able to join the Minn. Union Army during the Civil War. Sadly, his dream of helping others find freedom was short-lived, as he died from disease during the last days of the war.

Calvin Simmons – Houston, Minn.

Finding information on Calvin Simmons proved more difficult, compared to Pinkney’s buildings and Taylor’s life documented in the History of Houston County book. To learn about Simmons I visited where he used to live in Houston, Minn. My tour guide and gracious host to the property was Mark Witt. The farm resides with the Witt family and after many years, one gets to know the lay of the land and its history.

In a document discovered just this past year, there is a description of Houston’s founder, W.G. McSpadden, hiding escaping slaves in a cave during the 1850s. Witt heard about the cave and his attempts to find it remain elusive, a testimony to it being a safe hiding spot. Witt shared a dark moment when the McSpadden residence burned to the ground. When helping the owner of the time with cleanup, Witt found a hidden room under the kitchen and Witt’s first thought was that of a secret room for the Underground Railroad. When I shared the document of McSpadden aiding slaves, it all seemed to come together.

When the Civil War started, McSpadden enlisted for several years. Upon his return to Houston, a young black man from the south, Calvin Simmons, accompanied him.

McSpadden was determined to turn Houston into a destination community and built a three-story mill, snug against the steep, deeply folded bluffs on the narrow ribbon of Silver Creek. Once a massive structure, the mill featured an imposing dam that was so large it created Silver Lake.

Today as you approach the beautiful Silver Creek, evidence of the mill remains. The hand-hewn sluice chiseled out of dense limestone can be traced to its lengthy journey that rotated the mighty mill wheel. The enormity of work, determination and grit, it took to make this mill a contender in its day is breathtaking. McSpadden faced his share of floods and fires, yet each time he would always rebuild bigger and better.

 Simmons, his reliable friend and worker, likely shared McSpadden’s vision; that one day the mill would secure Houston as the largest community in the area. The aspiration eventually dissipated as other cities outgrew the town.

The sunset details of McSpadden life culminated with his eventual move to South Dakota. There he fulfilled the last item on his bucket-list; building and operating a grand hotel. Joining McSpadden was Simmons, who fulfilled his dream of having his own farm. Born a slave, Simmons ownership of his 80-acre plot was a tremendous achievement.

Later Simmons would marry and have four children and his was the only black family in the county. When he passed away Simmons was laid to rest in the McSpadden family plot. His headstone is engraved with an outline of his beloved farm home.

Reflection

At Silver Creek, catching the last golden rays of the day, one can admire the mill’s remaining graceful archway and its proud tumbled down walls. The water of the creek seems timeless as it unites the present to the past. This flowing water also ties where they lived, worked and dreamed, thus connecting, Pinkney, Taylor and Simmons. Their accomplishments are among us today; some dreams to see and others to envision.

Comments

A wonderful story about Minnesota and small town hospitality.  So much history has been lost; these stories were worth the wonderful effort.