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African Americans in Minnesota History

African Americans have been living in Minnesota since the early 1800s, fifty years before we became a state. Some of the state's earliest black Americans were fugitive slaves who escaped up the Mississippi River to Minnesota. About 104 black men from Minnesota served in the Civil War. In 1868, following the war, the state granted black men the right to vote.

Most black families historically settled in the Twin Cities, but small communities also grew in places like Duluth, Fergus Falls, Faribault, Stillwater, Aitkin County, and Redwood Falls. Among Morris' first black residents were students at the West Central School of Agriculture. Like the state's European immigrants, most black Americans moved to Minnesota for job opportunities and a better life.

In recognition of Black History Month, here's a look at a few of Minnesota's prominent black Americans:
  • J. Frank Wheaton was the first African American elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1898. He sponsored a significant state civil rights bill, passed in 1899, that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin.
  • James Burrel became St. Paul's first black policeman in 1892. (100 years later in 1992, St. Paul native William Finney became St. Paul's first black Chief of Police.)
  • Frederick McGhee became the first African American to practice criminal law in Minnesota in 1899. He helped found many civil rights organizations and was prominent in the Catholic church before his death in 1912.
  • Lena Smith, in 1921, became the first woman to pass the bar exam in Minnesota and the third black women in the U.S. to become an attorney. Her home in Minneapolis is on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • W. T. Francis, a black attorney, helped write and pass Minnesota's anti-lynching law in 1921. It was the first law of its kind in the country. Francis later served the federal State Department as U.S. Consul to Liberia.
  • Nellie Stone Johnson was the first black person elected to city office in Minneapolis in 1945. She was a civil and labor rights leader in the 1950s-1970s and helped pass Minnesota's job discrimination law in 1955.
  • Roy Wilkins was one of the country's top civil rights leaders in the 1950s-1970s. He worked at the national NAACP office from 1934-1977, serving as Executive Director from 1955-1977. Wilkins played a major role in Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark case that led to school desegregation. He also helped organize the pivotal 1963 civil rights march on Washington. On Jan. 24, 2001, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Wilkins' honor.
  • Gordon Parks is a nationally-known photographer, film maker, composer, and writer. He was a staff photographer for Life Magazine for many years beginning in 1949. Parks has written 15 books (including "The Learning Tree" of 1963), and written and directed many films (including "Shaft" of 1971).

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