It was easy, from Minnesota, to cheer on South Carolina as the confederate flag came down at state office buildings. When it was suggested that the Twin Cities might want to clean up its own symbolism, as embodied in the lake named for slavery enthusiast John Calhoun, the conversation stalled out pretty quickly — partly because the history of African-American people in Minnesota is not well known.
“Black people have been in Minnesota since before statehood, yet there is very little about them in the history books. As a result, we have this idea that Minnesota never participated in slavery, and life here has always been equitable for black people. Of course, neither of those things is true,” says historian and Augsburg College associate professor William D. Green. “It’s easy to develop a sense of self-satisfaction. We can be proud of elements of our history, but complacency is not on the side of angels. White Minnesotans didn’t have to worry about quality of life issues that black Minnesotans endured. And as long as that history isn’t recognized, it will continue.”
Green’s latest book, “Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912” (University of Minnesota Press) chronicles conditions for African-Americans in Minnesota in the half-century following the Civil War, when notable black figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington faced discrimination in their visits to the state, while black residents faced restrictions in education, employment and real estate. He details the fight to achieve black suffrage in the state, the rise of Jim Crow laws and the impact of segregation on public education. He also follows notable black intellectuals and entrepreneurs, including black barbers, a class of refined and personable men who worked among the wealthy and powerful, achieving personal prosperity while quietly advancing civil rights.