February is Black History Month. Over the next several weeks, we would like to provide you with bits of information about the events and lives of African Americans in Minnesota with an emphasis on African Americans in the Twin Cities. We will not be able to cover every event or highlight every person as it is impossible to do justice to the tremendous impact of one people on a community. We hope to provide you with enough to whet your appetite to learn more about the history and the cultures that have helped create the rich, vibrant community that we are all a part of.
The earliest record of a person of African descent in Minnesota tells us that in the 1790s Pierre Bonga, a black man, worked for the Northwest Fur Company in the Red River Valley. He married an Ojibwe Indian, and their son, George, was born near the site of Duluth in 1802. George also married an Ojibwe woman and spoke several Indian languages as well as English and French. He acted as in interpreter many times. He worked for the American Fur Company and later prospered as an independent fur trader.
Some African Americans were brought here as slaves by officers at Fort Snelling and by southern families vacationing in what is now Minnesota. The most famous of these slaves was Dred Scott. In 1846, Dred and his wife Harriet sued for freedom. The suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in 1857 against freeing the Scotts.
The 1850 national census recorded 40 African Americans residing in Minnesota territory. Two groups of slaves escaped from the South in the 1860s and found their way up the Mississippi River to St. Paul. These men, women, and children increased the core of the black community in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. During the Civil War and the decade afterwards the black population in Minnesota increased to nearly 800. Most of their jobs were in unskilled work in the downtown areas or with private families, although some set up businesses and became self-employed.
Very little is known of the early black population in Minneapolis except that it was concentrated on the East side of the Mississippi River after the merger of the towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis. By 1870 the combined black population of St. Anthony and Minneapolis had more than doubled to 162.
Source: Taylor, David Vassar. African Americans in Minnesota: The People of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. Print.