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.
As early as 1849 persons of African descent were barred from voting in congressional territorial, county and precinct elections, and this prohibition was extended to village elections in 1851 and to town meetings in 1853. The following year a bill, modeled on similar legislation in Ohio, would have required the posting of a personal bond of $300 to $500 as a guarantee of good behavior for every person of African descent intent upon becoming a permanent resident. The bill was defeated.
Several attempts to allow nonwhites to vote were reflected in two statewide referendums seeking to amend the constitution that failed in 1865 by 2,513 votes and in 1867 by 1,298 votes. By 1868, however, attitudes and political loyalties had shifted sufficiently to carry the issue by 9,372 votes. Thus on March 6, 1868, the Minnesota legislature amended the state constitution by granting the franchise to males of African descent, “civilized” Indians, and mixed-race persons over the age of 21. By so doing, Minnesota became one of the few states to enfranchise its citizens of African descent voluntarily – two years before the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permitting such persons to vote nationally.
Thirty years later, prominent Minneapolis attorney Frank Wheaton was elected to serve on the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1898 to 1900.
The closing decades of the 20th century witnessed the unprecedented election and appointments of African Americans to public offices. In 1972 James Griffin became the first black police officer to be appointed deputy chief of police in St. Paul. During the 1990s Bill Wilson and Jerry Blakey of St. Paul and Sharon Sayles Belton and Van White of Minneapolis were elected to the city councils. Sayles Belton went on to become the first female and first black mayor of Minneapolis, serving from 1994 to 2001. Another black woman, Jean Harris was elected mayor of Eden Prairie in 1995 and held that office until her death in December 2001. On July 14, 1992, St. Paul Mayor James Scheibel appointed William “Bill” Finney, as the first black chief of St. Paul police.
The “firsts” for persons of African descent continued into the 21st century with Neva Walker, the first black woman to be elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2001 and Keith Ellison, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. House from Minnesota in 2007.
Source: Taylor, David Vassar. African Americans in Minnesota: The People of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. Pfinrt.