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Minnesota's Sesquicentennial

150 Years of Human Rights in Minnesota

Events from 1889 to 1927

1889 Fredrick McGhee, Minnesota's first black attorney, argues his first case; in 1927 ten young African Americans created the Credjafawn Social Club.

Events from 1889 to 1927

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Fredrick McGhee was Minnesota's first black attorney, taking the oath on June 17, 1889, shortly after arriving in St. Paul, and arguing his first case less than a month later. For McGee, there would be many firsts -- in life, law, and politics. He became involved immediately in challenging Jim Crow laws in the courts. And with W.E.B. DuBois and other black leaders, in 1904 he formed the Niagara Movement -- the forerunner of the NAACP. His views were often at odds with the majority, including the majority of blacks, who were Republicans -- McGhee was a Democrat, and unlike most blacks, a Catholic. Yet throughout his life, he remained true to his own beliefs, and a tireless advocate for the rights of African Americans.


Although the Spanish-American War sparked unprecedented levels of patriotism as pro-war fever swept the nation during the late 1890s, not all Americans applauded the cause. African-Americans, especially, were divided on the war. Some argued that an oppressed people should not take up arms on behalf of their oppressors; other believed that brave fighting by black soldiers would enhance the standing of their race, and many black soldiers were eager to prove themselves. Despite their valor, African-Americans who answered the call to duty often found themselves victims of white racism and anti-black violence while serving in the Armed Forces; and the war did little, in the long term, to defeat Jim Crow and break down the barriers of prejudice.


The first African American elected to the Minnesota Legislature was also the first African American to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School. John Frank Wheaton was born in Hagerstown, Maryland where his father claimed to be the first black man to vote in that state. Young Wheaton was educated at Howard University, and moved to Minnesota in 1890. After graduating from Law School, he began his long career in state politics. In 1896, he was elected a member of the Minnesota delegation to the Republican Convention in St. Louis, and two years later won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He was a supporter of civil rights and lobbied for the commissioning of black officers during the Spanish-American War. Wheaton died in 1938.


Robert "Bobby" Marshall was an all-American end on the rough and tumble Gopher football teams of 1904, 05 and 106. The grandson of slaves in Virginia, Marshall grew up in Minneapolis and attended Central High School, where he excelled in sports. At the University of Minnesota, he proved to be an outstanding student as well as a fine athlete, graduating in 1907 with a law degree. But there were too few African American clients in the Twin Cities to support another black lawyer, and sports offered more opportunities, He played professional baseball for teams in Minneapolis and St. paul in a segregated black league, only later resuming his legal practice. An all-around athlete, he also played profootball and was briefly a professional motorcycle racer. There are those who argue that in his prime, he was the best athlete to come out of the state of Minnesota, and his name might have been even more legendary, had it not been for segregation. He died in 1958 at age 72.


On December 8, 1905, Nellie Stone Johnson was born on a farm near Lakeville. Both her parents were active members of the Farmer Labor Party, and role models for the young girl, who helped out her father by delivering Union leaflets on horseback. As a teenager working as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, she organized her fellow workers after management cut their wages. She would be active in labor, civil rights and politics in Minnesota throughout much of her life, and in 1945, she became the first African-American elected to public office in Minneapolis, when she was elected to the Library Board. She would serve as an adviser and mentor to many Democrat leaders including Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. She died in 2002 at the age of 96, leaving a legacy of political activism that helped shape our understanding of racism and what it means to be an American.


The first World War not only united America to defeat a common enemy, it brought Americans from many nationalities together in ways that few might have anticipated when the war began. In the early part of the 20th Century, tensions were high between Catholic and Protestants, between Jews, Irish, and Italians. Each new wave of immigrants settled in their own ethnic neighborhood and went to church, socialized with, and married within their own culture. But the First World War changed that -- regiments drew from every race, creed, color and social group, and men from different religions and nationalities would be together, and dependent upon each other for survival.

The role of African Americans in the military also changed. When the U.S. entered the war seeking volunteers, blacks were not allowed to enlist because quotas from African Americans were filled. When the draft came in, blacks were once again accepted and over 400,000 African Americans would serve in this conflict, in segregated units, in a fight for democratic liberties they themselves did not enjoy.

Unlike blacks, American Indians in World War I served in integrated units, and no group made a larger per capita contribution. Indian tribes had their own languages and dialects that few outside the tribes understood, and many of their languages were not written down. That made them an ideal resource for the U.S. military, which needed to protect its radio, telephone and telegraph messages from German intelligence. The military recruited these Indians as code talkers to send messages back and forth in their native languages. The Germans were never able to break this code.


Women throughout America had sought the right to vote since at least the mid-1850s, but their efforts had been met with score and ridicule. By 1875 Minnesota women could vote in school elections, but their franchise ended there. In Minnesota, one of the leading advocates for women's suffrage was Clara Hampson Ueland. In the years after World War I, she argued that mothers “have been the force that makes for better homes and higher civilization” and that women voters would bring a new moral concern to politics.

In 1920, the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteed that "the right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Shortly thereafter, Clara Hampson Ueland became the first president of the national League of Women Voters.


In 1920, in an event that would shock the nation, three young black men, wrongly accused of rape, were lynched by a mob in Duluth, Minnesota.

Two teenagers -- James Sullivan and Irene Tusken -- claimed they had both been assaulted by black workers employed by a traveling circus, and that Tusken had been raped by five or six of them. Although a medical examination later found no evidence of rape or assault, Duluth police arrested six black men identified by the teenagers, and soon a mob of between 5,000 and 10,000 people formed outside the Duluth city jail. The mob seized three black men -- Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie -- held a mock trial, and found them guilty of Irene Tusken's rape. They were taken to 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East, where they were lynched. The next day, the Minnesota National Guard arrived in Duluth to guard the remaining prisoners.

The killings made headlines throughout the country. Many were shocked that such an atrocity had happened in Minnesota. In 2003, the city of Duluth erected a memorial to the murdered workers, and thousands of citizens gathered to recall this sad chapter in Minnesota history and to plea for tolerance and humanity.


There was more proof that racism and hate were not the province of the Southern states. The year after the Duluth lynchings, Minnesota became the first state to pass an anti-lynching law. The following year, in 1922, the Ku Klux Klan held its first meeting in Minnesota, in a woods near Minneapolis. By the next year, there were as many as 10 active Ku Klux Klan chapters in Minneapolis alone. Its influence in Minnesota and the Dakotas continued to grow throughout the early 1920s. There were chapters on college campuses throughout the midwest, and nationally, the Klan's membership was believed to number at least 100,000. The Klan would fade in the North toward the end of the 1920s, as opposition to Klan violence grew, and other issues came to dominate public attention. But the prejudice and fear that motivated cross-burnings and other notorious Klan's activities remained -- toward blacks, Jews, Catholics and anyone who was not, in the Klan's estimation, a true, loyal American.


Until 1924, Indians were not universally considered citizens of the United States. Although many had become citizens through military service, special treaties, or by marrying a citizen, some could not vote or enjoy the other rights of citizenship, and there was no path of naturalization available to them, as there was for new immigrants. Then in 1924 Congress passed the federal Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Native American born in the United Sates. The move was seen as part of the some U.S leaders' goal to assimilate Indians into the American mainstream, and to recognize their valiant service to the nation in World War I.


In 1927 ten young African Americans created the Credjafawn Social Club. The club provided the Twin Cities black community with cultural, society and recreation activities, and was also a source of economic development, philanthropy and activism. The club eventually opened a cooperative food outlet and a credit Union, offered college scholarships, and worked to integrate hotels. The name of the club was derived by using a letter from each of the original ten member’s names.

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