MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As the calendar turns to February, we have now entered Black History Month.
It’s a chance to celebrate our country’s black heritage and culture while educating people.
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We wanted to know: What is black history in Minnesota? And when does it start? Good question.
In the heart of North Minneapolis, you can discover how this neighborhood’s roots stretch across the state.
“Here is a photo of my grandparents’ farm in Hutchinson, Minnesota. And they got there around 1910,” Coventry Cowens said, proudly pointing to a black and white photo depicting his family’s humble beginnings.
Cowens is the curator and director of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery.
“I think there are a lot of African American families going back six, seven, even eight generations in Minnesota,” she said.
When does black history in Minnesota begin?
“We don’t know the exact families or who they were who started it, but George is probably a starting point,” she said.
Cowens refers to George Bonga, who is considered the first black man born in Minnesota in 1802. He was a fur trader who still has descendants in the Duluth area today.
How is southeast Minnesota important to the state’s black history?
“I think that’s an entry point for a lot of African Americans who came from the South,” Cowens said.
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The museum launched a new exhibit on Tuesday, highlighting how families settled in southeast Minnesota in the 1800s, often using the Mississippi River as a route north. They lived in Rochester, Owatonna, Red Wing, Faribault, Hastings and other towns. Some were fleeing slavery, while others sought opportunities before and after the Civil War. There was plenty of land for them to become farmers, while many became esteemed barbers.
“Most of their clientele were white residents of those towns,” she said.
When did Minneapolis and St. Paul start becoming this foundation of the black community? It started in the late 1800s and the turn of the century. This is called the “great migration,” when black families from the south came north. They took jobs in mills and factories to fill a labor shortage.
In 1900, there were approximately 5,000 black residents in the state. When the migration ended in 1970, there were nearly 35,000. Many came from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some left to escape segregation and Jim Crow laws in search of more welcoming states. Thriving black communities were built in Minneapolis and St. Paul, in part because some neighborhoods rejected them.
“There were a few areas where you could only buy houses,” Cowens said.
Wedding rings and the “red lining” have prevented black families from getting loans to buy homes in parts of Minneapolis or nearby suburbs, pushing them to live in places like North Minneapolis.
These same communities have also been devastated by massive construction projects. Interstate 94 in St. Paul saw hundreds of homes and businesses in the Rondo neighborhood destroyed. Interstate 35W did the same in south Minneapolis.
“Some of that is growing back, and people can see it and they’re proud of a sort of revival of north Minneapolis, south Minneapolis and Rondo,” Cowens said.
The black population also continues to grow. From 2010 to 2018, it grew by 36 – the fastest growing racial group over that time in Minnesota, adding 69,800 people.
This strength in numbers and pride in expanding the black community across the Twin Cities is why Cowens believes the state’s black history has a bright future.
“Excitement is all that’s to come,” she said.
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The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery is located at 1256 Penn Avenue North. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Click here for more information.