Bowling for Equality

Bill Rhodman, Maurice Kilgore, C.W. Williams, Lafayette Allen, Len Griffin, and George Williams of the Allen Supermarket Team at the 1951 American Bowling Congress tournament in St. Paul, 1951

St. Paul played a role in desegregating organized bowling in the mid-twentieth century.

About 20 years ago, while researching Hubert Humphrey’s early civil rights advocacy, I came across a reference to his participation in a group called the National Committee for Fair Play in Bowling (NCFPB). Intrigued, I set off on a long journey of historical investigation that eventually uncovered this photograph, taken in St. Paul in 1951. It shows the members of the Allen Supermarket Team, six bowlers from Detroit who were just as much trailblazers in their sport as Jackie Robinson was in baseball.

In 1947, just four years before this photo was taken, the American Bowling Congress—the organization that controlled nearly every aspect of the country’s most popular amateur sport—voted to uphold its long-held “Caucasians-only” membership policy. Amid the stirrings of an incipient civil rights movement, the ABC was determined to show that African Americans and all other people of color were still, and always would be, unwelcome in the nation’s bowling alleys.

Opposition to the ABC and its racist policies burned brightest in Detroit, which was home to an impressive array of black-owned and black-welcoming bowling alleys unaffiliated with the ABC. With support from the NCFPB—an initiative of the United Auto Workers—African American leaders from Detroit and elsewhere began pressuring the ABC to change its ways. The organization finally capitulated and removed the racial ban from its constitution in 1950. Its first integrated tournament took place in St. Paul.

The Allen team finished in the middle of the pack in the St. Paul tournament, but their scores were almost beside the point. They had become, in the words of the team’s sponsor and captain, Lafayette Allen, “the first to be admitted as competitive individuals in the sport we love, for participation, regardless of the color of our skin.”

Minnesota’s role in desegregating bowling was mostly incidental, but Minnesotans can still take some pride in knowing that a significant moment in civil rights and sports history happened here. “In my book, the Twin Cities are the ‘Queen Cities’ of America,” Lafayette Allen wrote of his team’s experience in St. Paul. “Congeniality and fair play are the passwords in those wonderful cities.”

The Roots of Vaccine Skepticism

Smallpox vaccinations in Minneapolis, 1904. Via the Minnesota Historical Society

Some reluctance is historically understandable, even if it’s currently misguided.

One day in early 1901, a Minneapolis health inspector named Luxton visited the city workhouse to administer smallpox vaccine to all inmates who had not previously been vaccinated. Deadly smallpox was spreading rapidly across the nation, and had recently taken hold in Minnesota. The race was on to prevent the epidemic from getting out of hand. Public health officials in the state had no legal authority to force vaccinations on those who objected, but that didn’t stop them from occasionally wielding what were supposed to be prohibited powers against the powerless. The inmates at the workhouse fell into the powerless category.

While most of the men Luxton encountered that day submitted, one did not. “A muscular fellow with a determined look in his eye” declared that he was not about to let the vaccinator touch his arm. Luxton offered to administer the vaccine to the man’s leg instead. The man agreed. But it turned out the man was a trickster. He had a wooden leg. He insisted that Luxton do as promised, and perform the vaccination on the artificial limb. Luxton was not amused. He called in a couple jailkeepers and had them strip down the man and subdue him while vaccine was administered against his will. The story, which ran in the Minneapolis Tribune, served the health department’s purpose. It reassured readers that the city would do whatever it took to protect good people from the less good—those on the margins—who, by implication, could not be trusted to do the right thing.

It’s one of many such stories from our past that help explain why some people might be reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that only 42 percent of African American adults plan to get the coronavirus vaccine. That compares with 60 percent of Americans overall who are inclined to do so. Black people have plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the government’s public health intentions. Many are well aware of the Tuskegee syphilis study and other racial outrages perpetrated over the years in the name of medical advancement. And they are not alone. Other Americans marginalized due to race, ethnicity, and economic circumstances have reason to be wary as well. The forced vaccination of the man with the wooden leg is just one example from Minnesota’s early 1900s smallpox epidemic of how social inequities can taint efforts to protect public health.

The homeless and transient—those described by one St. Paul health official as belonging to the “lower world”—were among the first be singled out for coerced vaccination. Raids on Twin Cities lodging houses, dingy buildings packed with low-wage working men, became increasingly common. When a smallpox case was discovered at lodging house on South Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, a phalanx of city health workers moved in and “thoroughly fumigated and vaccinated” all lodgers, while police guarded the doors “to prevent exit or egress.” In this and other similar cases, health authorities got around restrictions on forced vaccination by threatening forced quarantines.

Recent immigrants were also subjected to early and uncompromising vaccination. In early 1901, the neighborhood known as Little Italy on St. Paul’s upper levee found itself under a “state of siege” when a child there was diagnosed with the most virulent strain of smallpox. In explaining the need to strictly enforce vaccination in the community, the St. Paul Globe explained that the residents of Little Italy were “clannish” and “little given to the most ordinary rules of cleanliness.”

Communities of color were likewise targeted with heavy-handed treatment during the epidemic. In northern Minnesota, federal authorities threatened to withhold treaty payments to members of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe if they did not get vaccinated. In Minneapolis, health officials raided an African American social club on Hennepin Avenue and prevented all members from leaving until they submitted to vaccination. These were not isolated incidents. Although authorities in Minneapolis acknowledged that smallpox made no distinction between toney Lowry Hill and downtrodden Bohemian Flats, they insisted it made sense to focus their attention on “poorer quarters” where the disease was most likely to spread. Such explanations provided little comfort to those who felt besieged by both disease and unequal treatment by the government.

This is not to say the inequities that surfaced during Minnesota’s mostly-forgotten turn-of-the-century smallpox epidemic can explain away the wariness that some people now have about the COVID-19 vaccine. Too many things have changed since the early 1900s to draw clear parallels. For one thing, there was no formal process to ensure the safety and efficacy of vaccines back then. Now there is. Beyond that, we have little reason to suspect that our current local, state, or federal authorities will stoop to forcing or coercing or anyone to take the coronavirus vaccine against their will. But public health missteps, no matter how infrequent or dated, add up in the collective memory. We should keep that in mind. It’s no surprise that some people think twice before saying yes to the latest vaccine.

The Lesson of St. Paul’s “N-Word” Lake

Loeb Lake, Marydale Park, St. Paul

Of course we have to rename things sometimes. We always have.

At the southeast corner Dale Street and Maryland Avenue in St. Paul, a lovely little body of water called Loeb Lake is the centerpiece of a lovely little public space known as Marydale Park. You can take a leisurely stroll around the lake. You can fish in it. It and its surrounding park constitute a true urban oasis. But Loeb Lake hasn’t always been so lovely.

And it used to have a far uglier name.

During the late 1800s, the lake at Dale and Maryland was bigger than it is now. It extended as far as Farrington Street on the east and across Maryland to the north. It was one of three lakes—the others being McCarron and Sandy—that fed Trout Brook, which joined with Phalen Creek on its way to the Mississippi River. Young people gathered there for skating parties during the winter. The Northwest Ice Company and, later, People’s Coal & Ice Company ran big ice harvesting and storage operations there. But over time, the lake succumbed to misuse and neglect. Industrial development siphoned off much of its water and polluted what was left. By mid-century it was known mainly as a runoff pond. It has since been restored.

I’ve pinpointed the lake on many old maps of St. Paul, but I have yet to find it identified by name. When it appears—which is not always—it’s just a small, blue blob. But the little lake did have a name, even if cartographers didn’t like to make note of it. And although I know what it was, I can’t use it here. It was called “N-Word” Lake.

I haven’t been able to find any explanation for why the body of water at Dale and Maryland was known by that name. All I know is that St. Paulites continued to refer to it that way until at least the second decade of the 20th century—and probably much later. The fact that a geographic feature of Minnesota’s capital city was known for so long by such a repellent name might rate as a mere curiosity if we were all willing to acknowledge today that names periodically need to change. But as we reckon anew with other names and monuments that offend evolving sensibilities, it’s clear that some people need reminding. We rename things all the time for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we just get tired of the old monikers. (Think of all the Mud Lakes that have been renamed over the years.) But sometimes we replace them because they’re ugly, embarrassing, and hurtful.

The lake in Marydale Park is not the only Minnesota body of water that, at one point in its history, was known by the “N-Word.” Burns Lake in Anoka County, for example, didn’t shed its old, offensive name until 1977. And other places with odious names—especially those referred to by derogatory terms used to describe indigenous people—have taken even longer to remove. Earlier generations of white Minnesotans saw nothing wrong with using such names. We know better. And people who, today, demand that we leave well enough alone are simply ignorant of the history they claim to be protecting.

While We’re On the Subject of Racist Images…

Painting by Edward Brewer, 1921

It’s probably time to consider the mysterious longevity of this Minnesota-born corporate symbol.

Quaker Oats’ recent decision to abandon its Aunt Jemima brand and acknowledge its origin as a racial stereotype got me thinking about another well-known corporate mascot—and the concept of complicity.

For more than a century, the breakfast cereal Cream of Wheat (manufactured for many years in Minneapolis) has featured a fictional African American chef named Rastus on its packaging and in its advertisements. Like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Rastus has, since his birth in Minnesota, reflected and reinforced white stereotypes, rooted in slavery, of happy and docile black servitude. Confronted periodically by critics, Cream of Wheat’s corporate overseers have defended Rastus’s marketing endurance by touting his high recognition among generations of consumers. The product’s current owner, B&G Foods, has yet to encounter any intense pressure to retire Rastus, but that could easily change now that Aunt Jemima is leaving. But even if B&G ultimately accepts responsibility for perpetuating such a long-running racial stereotype, we shouldn’t forget that Cream of Wheat’s various owners are not the only ones who have made it possible for such a problematic brand to persist.

What about the ad agencies that, over the years, accepted and developed Cream of Wheat founder Emery Mapes’s vision of an African American chef mascot? Two firms—the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Company of New York and the Mac Martin Advertising Agency of Minneapolis—were most responsible for turning Rastus into a marketing phenomenon during the early 1900s. They eschewed what were called “reason-why” campaigns (those touting health benefits, for example) in favor the kind of pure emotion that they felt Rastus conveyed. And their unconventional marketing approach was widely admired within the advertising industry. A 1917 article in the trade publication Printers’ Ink—written in jarringly racist language— described the Rastus ads as, “delightfully tender and human reflections of real life.” Today we recognize them instead as gauzy representations of a servile black man doing the bidding of white children and adults.

What about the artists who used a photograph of a real person—an African American lunch counter attendant from Chicago—as the inspiration for dozens of Cream of Wheat paintings? Several famous American illustrators, including James Montgomery Flagg, created versions of Rastus, but none was as prolific as Minneapolis artist Edward Brewer, who painted his first one in 1911. Whatever misgivings Brewer and his fellow illustrators had about using a real-life black subject to sell breakfast cereal were apparently easily outweighed by the $500 commission each painting generated. The character they created still smiles out from boxes of Cream of Wheat today.

What about the journalists and historians who, in the past, wrote glowingly about the endurance of the Cream of Wheat brand without acknowledging the damaging stereotype it propagated? An admiring 1980 profile of Edward Brewer in the Minnesota Historical Society’s journal, Minnesota History, featured multiple reproductions of Brewer’s Rastus paintings without once mentioning their racial component. Such an omission would probably never make it past an editor today, but anyone who writes about history—myself included—knows how easily unexamined prejudices can make their way into copy. We need to acknowledge that our choices as writers and historians sometimes add to the problem.

And finally, what about those of us who actually like Cream of Wheat, who have happily purchased and eaten it without ever really thinking about the face on the box and what it represents. Perhaps we can forgive ourselves for not knowing the truth about Rastus’s origins, for not knowing that his creator, Emery Mapes, joked he could sell sawdust if his “n____s”—meaning dark-skinned mascots like Rastus—led the marketing campaign. But we could easily have figured it out if we had chosen to. The question is: If we had known, would it have mattered? Would it have convinced us to stop buying Cream of Wheat or demand Rastus’s removal? Consider me skeptical.

It’s easy to dismiss such questions as a distractions. (Does anybody even eat Cream of Wheat anymore?) But Rastus and Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are, for all their marketing stamina, cultural relics. Whatever fondness we might have for them, whatever value they might have as brands, they’re not worth the trouble anymore. It’s time for Minnesota-born Rastus to take off his chef’s hat and retire.

Police and the Weapons of War: A Love Story

The original AR-15

Police militarization goes back at least to the 1960s.

The militarization of police departments may have accelerated over the past two decades thanks to the federal government’s “1033 Program”—through which law enforcements agencies can obtain “demilitarized” fighting vehicles, aircraft, and other accoutrements of war from the U.S. Defense Department—but the process has been going on much longer than that. In early 1968, the police departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul both decided to arm themselves with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. The AR-15 was, at the time, considered the twin of the M16, a military weapon used heavily by U.S. troops in Vietnam. The police said they needed such weapons to maintain law and order during certain circumstances, including “civil disturbances.” These were times of unprecedented civil unrest in America (the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination and its immediate aftermath occurred as this issue was coming to the fore) and for many African Americans in the Twin Cities, the decision to arm police with weapons typically used during war smacked of deliberate intimidation. Minneapolis NAACP President Sam Richardson said the acquisition of AR-15s showed that the city was interested only in putting down unrest—not in eliminating its causes.

Maybe the most interesting thing about all this is how the two cities resolved the controversy.

In Minneapolis, Mayor Art Naftalin, a liberal DFLer, quickly sided with the Black community and ordered the police department to return the rifles. The head of the police union, future mayor Charles Stenvig, huffed that officers might have to buy their own.

In St. Paul, Mayor Thomas Byrne, a DFLer up for reelection, chose to back the police. Even a sit-in by protesters that shut down his office could not make him budge. Byrne pushed the controversy to the city’s civil rights commission, which held a few hearings before letting the issue die.

The controversy over the AR-15 purchases seems almost quaint today, given that AR-15-style rifles have since become nearly ubiquitous among gun-loving civilians. But it’s a reminder that our police have a long history of trying to arm themselves with the most powerful weapons they can find.

The Power of Pressure Campaigns

Pillsbury thought these Funny Face flavors were a good idea—until activists spoke up.

As pro teams in DC and Cleveland consider dumping names offensive to indigenous people, here’s a reminder to keep up the pressure.

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune, during a previous, unsuccessful attempt to force the “Redskins” into retirement

Sometimes it seems the long struggle to force the NFL’s Washington Redskins franchise to change its name is destined to fail. Many Minnesotans remember the scene in 1992, when the American Indian Movement and its supporters organized symposiums and protests to coincide with the Washington team’s Super Bowl appearance at the Metrodome. Nothing much changed then. The Redskins remained the Redskins. Today, the team and its fans continue to embrace a name and logo that many others consider blatantly offensive. It would be easy to conclude that protest against corporate misappropriation of American Indian culture is futile.

But it’s not. It’s worked before. And a few of the most memorable success stories played out here in Minnesota.

In 1964, Minneapolis-based Pillsbury introduced a new line of powdered soft drink mixes to compete with Kool-Aid. Pillsbury called its new, sugar-free product Funny Face. (Its artificial sweetener, sodium cyclamate, was later linked to cancer and banned by the FDA, but that’s a different story.) Each Funny Face flavor was named for a silly character: Goofy Grape, Loud-Mouth Lime, Freckle-Face Strawberry, Rootin’-Tootin’ Raspberry, and two others that soon created major public relations headaches at Pillsbury—Chinese Cherry and Injun Orange.

The Chinese Cherry character was a slant-eyed red cherry with buckteeth and a pigtail. Injun Orange, with his crossed eyes, skewed war paint, and limp feathers, smiled insipidly in a nearly perfect distillation of negative Native American stereotypes. Both characters, along with their less offensive product line-mates, were big hits with kids and parents alike.

But this was the height of the modern Civil Rights era. Minority groups were finding their voice, and they were not inclined to let corporate America get away with insensitive and insulting marketing campaigns. In early 1966, the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) called on Pillsbury to dump both Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry. The group claimed that the two characters’ “derogatory nature” was “highly objectionable.”

It was only after the AAIA went public with its anti-Funny Face campaign that Pillsbury announced it was already phasing out the two characters. It turned out that several other groups, including Chinese-American grocers in Sacramento, had filed similar complaints. “We admit guilt all over the lot,” a Pillsbury spokesman said. “It was in poor taste. We quickly saw our fault and as early as last July we decided to change the names.” Chinese Cherry became Choo Choo Cherry. Injun Orange turned into Jolly Olly Orange.

If the campaign to dispatch Injun Orange had constituted the only successful protest against corporate-perpetuated Native American stereotypes, then perhaps it would make sense to write off as unwinnable the current campaign against the Washington Redskins name. But Pillsbury was just one in a string of companies that were convinced to change their stereotyping ways in the 1960s and beyond. In 1965, Calvert Distillers, under pressure from the AAIA and other American Indian groups, dropped a “soft whisky” ad that read in part: “The Indians didn’t call whisky firewater for nothing. Why do you think they were yelping all the time?” A year later, the AAIA scored a similar victory against the Marx Toys Company, manufacturer of a vulgar children’s doll called “Nutty Mad Indian.” And in 1967, Roger Jourdain, chairman of Minnesota’s Red Lake Band of Chippewa, helped convince General Electric to pull an ad featuring rambunctious white youngsters dressed in Indian costume. The copy for the ad read, “When you decide to shoot wild Indians, you can’t afford to miss.”

Of course Pillsbury, Calvert, Marx, and General Electric were not football franchises. They did not have rabid fans, steeped in the “traditions” that a team name and logo can come to represent. But those companies—and many others over the years—have succumbed to pressure after realizing they failed to consider the damage their marketing might do. It’s not hard to imagine that the NFL team from Washington will eventually do the same.

Indigenous Rejection of Mount Rushmore Goes Way Back

AIM’s Dennis Banks at Mount Rushmore, 1970

Backlash against Trump’s Black Hills stunt brings back memories of an early American Indian Movement protest.

Excerpted from Minnesota in the ’70s, which I co-authored with Thomas Saylor

In the late summer of 1970, a contingent of AIM activists including Dennis Banks and new member of the leadership group, Russell Means, headed to South Dakota to join a protest at Mount Rushmore. The protest, originally started by a determined group of Lakota women, had begun small with a simple goal: to demand that the U.S. government honor its commitments under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty…and acknowledge that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota people. But the Mount Rushmore demonstration began attracting sympathizers from far beyond South Dakota, including the young activists from AIM. At first, the newcomers were content to support the local protesters by holding signs and making speeches. But soon they began itching to do more.

On the evening of August 24, Russell Means and a few other protesters broke away from the main group and headed up the mountain, determined to make a statement that no one could ignore. Chased by forest rangers, they made it to the summit and set up camp behind Teddy Roosevelt’s head. They painted a homemade banner declaring “Sioux Indian Power” and unfurled it over George Washington’s face. Means, standing on a ledge high above the monument’s amphitheater, delivered voice-of-God lectures on U.S. government perfidy to confused tourists below.

The government…opted to wait out the militants rather than risk a violent confrontation. The protesters, for their part, were in no rush to leave. They remained on the monument for several months until cold weather forced them to abandon camp. The occupation of Mount Rushmore failed to gain any concessions from the government, but it did generate a good bit of national publicity. It also built a foundation of camaraderie that would nurture the movement in the months to come. “Some folks fell in love up there, and a few babies were made on that mountain,” Means later wrote. “Occupying Mount Rushmore was fun.”

Mississippi Bests Minnesota

Mississippi just got rid of its state flag. Why can’t Minnesota?

There’s a saying, especially common in the Deep South—“Thank God for Mississippi!”—that suggests that, no matter how bad things are where you live, they’re probably worse in the Magnolia State. It’s an all-purpose put-down that applies to everything from educational achievement scores to infant mortality rates. Here in Minnesota, we rarely stoop to such belittlements because we automatically assume our state’s superiority. But perhaps we should reconsider our arrogance. After all, Mississippi just got rid of its racist state flag. We’re still stuck with ours.

Minnesota’s state flag has never been particularly beloved. It features a cluttered design that’s impossible to make out from a distance. In fact, 19 years ago, a collection of flag experts (yes, there are such people) voted Minnesota’s flag the fifth worst in the nation, design-wise, behind only New Hampshire, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. Like those other loser states, Minnesota chose to incorporate its state seal in its flag’s design. And it’s the seal that poses the problem.

The state seal, based on a sketch by soldier and artist Seth Eastman, dates back to the late 1840s, before Minnesota was even a state. Its original design featured, in the foreground a farmer plowing a field, with a rifle and ax leaning against a tree stump. In the background, an Indian man on horseback rode into a sunset. There was nothing subtle about the message: Minnesota was to be a land of white people and its indigenous residents were to go away. A poem by Eastman’s wife, Mary, left little doubt about the seal’s prevailing theme of white people’s Manifest Destiny:

Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun’s parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough.

The seal appeared on Minnesota’s first official flag in 1893, and has remained its central design element ever since. There have been a few changes, including, most significantly, a course correction for the Indian rider instituted in 1983. He now rides to the south instead of the west, which is apparently meant to neutralize objections to the “riding into the sunset” message.

Critics have periodically tried—and failed—to change Minnesota’s flag and remove its racist imagery. This year, a bill calling for a study of its design died in legislative committee. When it comes to its flag, the North Star State remains a state of inertia. But at least we’ve given the good folk of Mississippi an excuse to say, “Thank God for Minnesota!”

Minnesota’s Worst Monument

Minnesota has never had to deal with Confederate monuments on its soil, but it did have to deal with this.

Originally published by MINNPOST on August 25, 2017

It’s easy as Minnesotans to sit back and watch from a safe distance as Americans elsewhere struggle to decide what to do about the Confederate monuments in their midst. Minnesota, after all, is apparently among the minority of states without at least one such monument within its borders. But before we congratulate ourselves for our sophisticated and nuanced understanding of history and race, we would do well to remember what happened in our state just over a century ago.

On the day after Christmas, 1912, several hundred people gathered at the corner of what was then Front and Main streets in downtown Mankato to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Thirty-eight Dakota men had been executed at that exact spot for crimes allegedly committed during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The highlight of the fiftieth anniversary commemoration was the dedication of granite monument inscribed with the words, “Here Were Hanged 38 Sioux Indians.”

In his dedication address, Judge Lorin Cray rejected any notion that the monument inappropriately glorified a mass killing. As the Mankato Free Press reported, he “wished to have it understood that the monument [had] not been erected to gloat over the deaths of the redmen,” but was instead meant “simply to record accurately an event in history.” The judge’s assessment held sway for more than four decades.

But slowly opinions changed.

In the late 1950s, a small group of Mankatoites began advocating for the monument’s removal. Its presence, they argued, gave the city an “unwholesome reputation.” Pharmacist Allen Mollison went so far as to ask Governor Orville Freeman to join the campaign. Although Freeman did not respond, the head of his human rights commission, Clifford Rucker, did. Rucker wrote that he and his fellow commissioners agreed the “eyesore” should be removed. He also complained that the Minnesota Historical Society felt otherwise and was determined to block any removal efforts.

The monument remained in place for another fifteen or so years while the arguments over its fate ebbed and flowed. In 1971, the city finally removed it—but only to make way for urban removal. The contentious granite slab was placed in storage with plans to reinstall it at some point in the future.

By that time, however, many Mankato residents had come to believe that commemorating a mass execution was, at the very least, tacky and culturally insensitive—and possibly even an incitement to violence given the rise of militant organizations like the American Indian Movement. The monument never reappeared in public.

The current location of the Mankato monument remains unknown. About ten years ago, a history class at Mankato State University tried without success to track down the slab. The students uncovered some evidence that a city employee had given the monument to Dakota elders, but the investigative trail ended there.

Now a new memorial exists near the place where the vanished monument once stood. Reconciliation Park features a statue of a buffalo and a large “scroll” inscribed with the names of the thirty-eight men who were executed there.

It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like for an American Indian—especially a Dakota—to walk past that granite slab at Front and Main, knowing that many Minnesotans considered it simply a piece of history, etched in stone. Thankfully it’s gone now, even if it was meant to be removed only temporarily. Its disappearance has not erased history. But the fact that it existed at all should serve as a reminder that we Minnesotans have always struggled, and often failed, to live up to our ideals of racial and cultural justice. It’s not just southerners. We northerners are capable of erecting “eyesores,” too.

The Killing of Tim Graham

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I went looking for the earliest case of an officer killing a Black person in Minnesota. This is what I found.

Published by MINNPOST on June 19, 2020

Distrust, fear, and loathing of law enforcement has permeated African American communities in the Twin Cities—with good reason—since long before the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. But even those most familiar with local law enforcement’s well-documented record of violence against Black, Native, and other marginalized communities may not realize just how far back those sentiments reach. Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty, evidence suggests that the relationship between Black people and law enforcement began seriously deteriorating in the Twin Cities in the late 1880s, when an African-American man was shot to death by a cop. It may well have been the first case of a law enforcement officer killing a Black Minnesotan—and it’s remained largely forgotten.

On the evening of September 27, 1887, Ramsey County Sheriff Fred Richter shot and killed Tim Graham in the basement of the county jail in downtown St. Paul. Graham was 35 years old, married, and had worked until recently as the jail’s janitor. He had spent at least part of the evening he died drinking beer and playing cards in a nearby saloon. After leaving the bar, he had returned to his former place of employment and somehow gotten inside. It was there, in the jail’s basement, that he had his deadly encounter with Richter.

As the sheriff would later testify, he didn’t realize at the time that the man he discovered in the basement was Graham. He insisted he thought Graham was an inmate trying to escape:

I commanded him to him to come out and show himself. He made no effort to do so at first, and I pulled aside some of the clothing in order to obtain a look at his face. Just as I did so, the fellow bumped up against me, still endeavoring to screen his face, and pushed on out into the hallway leading to the street door. He did not heed my command to halt, but persisted in trying to reach the front door, as I supposed, whereupon I fired, and there is the result.

Most local newspapers readily accepted Richter’s version of events. They also played up circumstances that reflected poorly on Graham—especially his alleged fondness for liquor. The St. Paul Globe reported that “a telltale flask in the right pocket of [Graham’s] sack coat showed that he had stimulated himself for the accomplishment of some purpose, probably murder.” But St. Paul’s most influential African American newspaper, the Appeal, hinted that other, more nefarious motives on the sheriff’s part, were at play. “There is something beneath the surface that has not been brought to light,” the newspaper’s editor, John Quincy Adams, wrote, “and therefore a full investigation of the affair should be had.”

A coroner’s jury met two days after the killing to examine its circumstances, but the outcome was never really in doubt. Five of the six jurors were white. The jury’s sixth member—African American businessman Thomas Lyles—was the only one who seemed interested in pursuing the case further. After an hour and a half of deliberations, the jury ruled 5-to-1 that Richter was justified in killing Graham. Lyles was the sole dissenter.

For many Black Twin Citians, the jury’s decision confirmed what they had always suspected—that justice was anything but colorblind in Minnesota. “Nothing that has transpired in this city since our advent seems to have so aroused the Colored citizens as the killing of Tim Graham by Sheriff Richter,” the Appeal declared. “The sentiment among them is almost unanimous, that the killing was unjustifiable, the verdict of the majority of the coroner’s jury to the contrary notwithstanding.” Compounding the injustice, the Appeal lamented, was the fact that outrage at the verdict was shared “by a large number of whites who are not so hide bound and affected with color prejudice, that they cannot render a just opinion where the two races are concerned.”

On the evening after the jury’s decision was announced, Thomas Lyles and Rev. William Gray of Pilgrim Baptist Church called a community meeting to discuss possible responses. About three dozen people showed up. The participants discussed ways to bring the case before a grand jury, but they knew chances of a reversal were slim. If anyone advocated a public protest, the suggestion was not recorded. With so few options for justice available, the Appeal expressed the helplessness that many of its readers felt. “We have come to the conclusion,” John Quincy Adams wrote, “that that because a county officer, a white man, has killed only a Negro, nothing [can] be done about the matter,”

A week later, a grand jury affirmed the decision of the coroner’s panel and cleared Richter.

“And that settles it,” the Appeal concluded.

From our vantage today, with outrage over the death of George Floyd spreading across the globe from Minneapolis, it’s hard to imagine how another killing at the hands of law enforcement, 133 years ago, failed to generate more than a few days’ headlines. But 1887 was a different time. With the previous census showing fewer than 500 Black residents in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Twin Cities African American community did not possess the sheer numbers or political clout needed to effect major change. And despite the Appeal’s assertion of substantial support among white Minnesotans, there was little evidence to suggest that any of them were willing wage a fight for racial justice in the name of Tim Graham or any other Black victim. Those were the realities that Black Twin Citians had to cope with in 1887. And while succeeding generations have despaired that the outrages perpetrated by our criminal justice system continued as decades passed, we can at least hope that the energy evident in today’s protests will bring the kind of justice that Tim Graham was denied.