In celebration of Black History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on black history and culture, as well as on broad issues of racial and social justice. Like a good conversation with friends after a good meal, we have not attempted to steer the conversation in any direction but instead will seek to enjoy the richness of the ideas. Please therefore curl up with a warm blanket during this extended cold snap and enjoy the conversation with us.
I am part of the first generation in my family to be born after the end of legal segregation by skin color. My parents and I were the second African American family to move into my hometown (in 1976), and the first such family preceded us by only three years. As a result, I grew up with an awareness that I was often the first African American to partake of different experiences in my hometown. I could relate to all the African Americans I studied who had achieved their own and much more significant ”firsts.”
Over time I evolved from awareness of my “firsts” to concern for yet untold stories. I was the first African American to graduate through the Honors College at Oklahoma State University in 1995. In graduate school at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I learned stories about various people who had impacted society but had not become household names or prominent in history textbooks. When researching American animation from the early twentieth century, I made a point to interview animators who had not received much coverage in books about film. From those interviews, I learned that people like to be considered important, and they like to feel as if they were part of something important. They may not go out of their way to seek recognition, but they are happy when it finds them.
When I finished my doctorate and moved to Minnesota in 2002, I applied my focus on the understudied to local history. Within a year of my arrival, I learned that enslavers brought African American unfree laborers to St. Cloud. My desire to learn more about them led to information about how money from slavery affected Minnesota as a territory and a state. I was amazed to learn that enslaved African Americans did not even have to be in Minnesota to influence the state through their labor. After years of hearing about how African Americans were a small demographic in the state and did not matter to the state, I felt empowered to learn about how the labor of the enslaved helped make possible the University of Minnesota, Travelers Insurance, and other local businesses.
I am passionate about promoting the need for all Americans to respect the sacrifices of enslaved laborers. They were separated from their families and badly beaten while being foundational to our country and, in the case of Minnesota, to our state. It is not un-American to make slavery a central part of America’s history, because slavery enabled America’s existence to an extent. Therefore, to talk about slavery in Minnesota is to make Minnesota more American. To honor African American struggle is to honor America.
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By: Christopher P. Lehman
Christopher P. Lehman is a Professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University.