Minnesota's history is celebrated for its Scandinavian and European influences, but it's essential to recognize the often-overlooked African-American presence that dates back to the state's early days. In this investigative journey, let’s dive into the untold narratives, notable figures, and poignant stories that represent the African-American heritage in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The Early Days
When does Minnesota’s Black history begin?
Although not many know the exact families or who originally started, George Bonga, born in 1802, holds the distinction of being the first African-American born in what would become the state of Minnesota. His father, Pierre Bonga, a free African-American, and his mother, an Ojibwe woman, were among the early settlers in the region. George Bonga himself became a key figure in Minnesota's fur trade, a testament to the dynamic multicultural landscape of the time. The Bonga family, including George's brother Stephen Bonga, played pivotal roles in Minnesota's early history, contributing to the cultural tapestry of the state.
During the 1800s, Black families began to move to the southeastern part of Minnesota. Many of them used the Mississippi River as a route to freedom from slavery (when Minnesota became an official state in 1858, it was mandated that slavery was no longer allowed constitutionally) or to pursue better opportunities before and after the Civil War. They settled in cities, such as Rochester, Owatonna, and Fairbault, where there was ample land for them to cultivate farms, and many of them established successful barber shops.
What is known to be the “Great Migration” started in the early 1900s when even more Black families from the South came north, especially to Minnesota. At the start of the twentieth century, Minnesota had a Black population of 5,000, but this number had increased to 35,000 by 1970. This migration was largely composed of people from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, who sought a better life away from the segregation and Jim Crow laws of their home states. Minneapolis and St. Paul became the center of these Black communities, as some residential areas refused to accept them.
Despite Minnesota being a progressive state with laws protecting against discrimination, many restaurants and hotels still denied service to Black people. Restrictive housing covenants, “red-lining”, barred them from moving into certain neighborhoods. As a result, Black people faced discrimination in housing, employment, and education. To combat this, they launched court actions and created organizations to fight for their civil rights. The organizations were Minnesota Protective and Industrial League, the Afro-American League, and the Minnesota Citizen Civil Rights Committee.
John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire
A story that has been hidden away; a story of a hero who has been forgotten by many. John Wesley Blair, a railroad porter, is recognized for his bravery and heroism in the Hinckley Fire of 1894, one of the most devastating firestorms in U.S. history.
On a Saturday morning in September, John Wesley Blair reported for duty as a porter on The Limited No. 4 train. The 170-mile route from Duluth to Saint Paul was familiar to him, as it was where he lived with his wife and two boys. Not much is known about Blair before this day, but it is assumed that he was born in Arkansas in 1853.
As a porter for the Saint Paul and Duluth Railway Company, Blair was likely responsible for carrying passengers' luggage, cleaning the train cars, and providing services such as shining shoes and serving food. Being a railroad porter offered Black men like Blair a stable income, but sadly too often they were mistreated, underpaid, overworked, and had to endure numerous humiliations while on the job.
At 1:55 p.m., the train began its journey from Duluth, while Blair attended to the needs of the 150 passengers on the seven-car train. As the train traveled south, the sky quickly grew dark. Little did they know, the combination of one of the driest summers, excessive logging and debris, low humidity, and strong winds had generated a firestorm down the tracks. This event is now known as The Great Hinckley Fire. Blair was quick to hand out wet towels to help passengers breathe.
As the locomotive approached Hinckley, Blair and the rest of the crew noticed a large crowd of 150 people surrounding the train, pleading for rescue. They had recently escaped the burning town, informing those aboard that both the bridge and station had been decimated. Without hesitation, Blair and the crew helped the refugees aboard the train.
Blair had noticed the proximity of Skunk Lake and shouted out a warning to the engineer. The engineer reversed the engine and the train sped backwards in an attempt to reach the lake. Unfortunately, it was too late and the train caught fire. Despite his own injuries, Blair stayed with the passengers, calming them, extinguishing their clothes with a fire extinguisher, and giving them water and wet towels to tend to their wounds. He was severely burned in the process.
Once the train arrived, the crew quickly moved to get the passengers off the train and into the lake. Blair returned to the train several times to ensure all the children were safe. After all the passengers had been rescued, he was the last one to leave the locomotive. Everyone stayed in the lake until the fire passed. During the cold night, Blair helped the passengers back to the burnt train where they could find some warmth.
On 2 September, the Duluth rescue team arrived in a hand car in the early morning to save the passengers. They soon found out that the fire had destroyed a quarter-million acres in a mere four hours, taking hundreds of lives and destroying many towns.
According to TPT Originals, despite the international attention given to the fire, none of The New York Times stories about it included mention of John Blair. After a few weeks had passed since the firestorm, Blair was honored for his heroic actions. He was first praised by the African-American community with a gold badge and later was acknowledged by the Railroad authorities for his bravery.
Preserving African-American Heritage
Efforts to preserve and celebrate African-American heritage in Minnesota are ongoing. Organizations and individuals are working diligently to collect, document, and share the stories of African-Americans in the state. The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, located in Minneapolis, is dedicated to preserving and showcasing African-American history, offering an invaluable resource for those seeking to learn about the state's African-American heritage.
Minnesota's African-American history is a multifaceted and resilient journey, marked by stories of adversity and triumph. From early pioneers, like George Bonga and John Blair, to trailblazers and icons, like Prince and Briana Scurry, African-Americans have left indelible contributions in various fields.
Their stories highlight the enduring pursuit of justice and diversity. As we unearth these forgotten legacies and celebrate the accomplishments and resilience of African-Americans in Minnesota, we acknowledge their integral role in shaping the state's identity and the rich tapestry of American history.
Edited by: Anwen Venn
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