skip to content
Primary navigation
Feature image for 150 Years of Human Rights: 1914-1941

150 Years of Human Rights: 1914-1941


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.


Jews have lived in Minnesota since it was created as a territory in 1849. Like many immigrants, they came to the United States to escape religious and political persecution, yet often found it here in America, and especially in Minnesota. While many American cities discriminated against the Jews by limiting where they could live, work, or attend school, Minneapolis in particular had a nation-wide reputation for its anti-Semitism. From the 1880s through the 1950s, the city's Jews were excluded from membership in many organizations, faced employment discrimination, and were not allowed to buy homes in certain neighborhoods.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota originated in Minneapolis in the 1930s in response to events abroad and at home. The persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany; the activities of hate groups like the Silver Shirts in Minnesota; and the anti-Semitic overtones of the 1938 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign all encouraged the formation of an organization to monitor and protest these activities. Beginning in 1936, an informal organization, the Anti-Defamation Council of Minnesota, was the vehicle of Jewish protest against all forms of anti-Semitism. In later years the council worked for passage of fair employment practices laws and became involved a wide range of community activities, supporting civil rights, civil liberties, separation of church and state, and cooperation among religious faiths.


Pipestone National Monument was created by an act of Congress in 1937. For centuries Indians had come to this site to quarry the red stone called pipestone, used to carve scared ornamental pipes, treasured possessions that were often buried with ancestors. In the 19th Century the carved pipes found their way into white society through trade, and though an 1858 treaty had promised Indians free access to the area, white setters came to dig pits and extract the sacred stone. When Pipestone National Monument was signed into existence, the land was open to the public but quarrying was limited to Indians. Pipestone National Monument is located in southwestern Minnesota, just north of the city of Pipestone.

Watch the video

back to top