In 1903, a white mob told six black residents they had two days to get out of their southwestern Minnesota city of Montevideo, following an assault in which a newspaper reported a “negro fiend” was the prime suspect. A mock lynching followed a few nights later, 50 miles east in Olivia.
In 1920, three black circus workers were dragged from the Duluth jail, beaten and hanged from a telephone pole while a white throng — including police — watched.
In 1924, a St. Paul group, worried what black neighbors would do to property values, burned flares and crosses in the front lawn of Nellie and William Francis — a suffragist and railroad lawyer.
Although far from the violent racism that erupted in the South, Minnesota’s racial history is punctuated with chilling tales of hate.
And now there’s a website that tracks so-called “sundown towns,” where blacks were barred, discriminated against and even murdered.
The website is the brainchild of James Loewen, 76, a sociologist and author who attended Carleton College in the early 1960s. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and teach race relations for 20 years before retiring from the University of Vermont. His book, “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” came out in 2005 and spawned the website.
“When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country,” Loewen says. “Instead, I have found about 507 in Illinois and thousands across the United States.”
His website — sundown.tougaloo.edu/sundowntowns.php — includes anecdotal comments from unnamed contributors and a U.S. map. Click on Minnesota and 23 communities pop up from Albert Lea to Worthington — two of 13 places classified as “possible” sundown towns.
Four towns — Coleraine, Granite Falls, Pine Island and Stillwater — are tagged as “probable” sundown towns, while Austin, Edina and St. Louis Park are said to be “surely” built on racist pasts.
“Loewen’s website is a great teaching tool and I use it every semester,” said Prof. Christopher P. Lehman, who is chair of the Ethnic, Gender and Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State.
“My students never fail to be stunned by the history,” said Lehman, who wrote extensively about the 1903 Montevideo case 112 years later in Minnesota History magazine (tinyurl.com/1903Montevideo).
Edina’s restrictive history is well documented. Platted in 1924 as one of Minnesota’s first planned communities, Edina’s Country Club neighborhood required 40-year restrictive deeds that told residents what kind of trees to plant and where to put garbage cans. It also stated that: “no lot shall ever be sold, conveyed, leased or rented to any person other than of the white or Caucasian race …”
Such restrictive covenants and discriminatory housing practices were commonplace in Minnesota in the 1800s and early 1900s until the Supreme Court declared them unenforceable in 1948.
Loewen points to Edina and Grosse Point, Mich., as “elite suburbs … that have excluded nonwhites by ‘kindler and gentler means.’ ”
His website is far from definitive, and he admits there’s “much work to be done on sundown towns” in Minnesota.
That said, Loewen’s site includes lengthy instructions on how to confirm sundown towns. “Oral history is fine,” it says, “so long as it is solid. Thus, if a person says ‘Blacks were not allowed …’ then s/he should be asked, “How do you know that?’ ”
Despite its flaws, the website is, as Lehman says, a cyber tool worth exploring. Here’s a look at the Minnesota communities pegged with either a “surely” or “probable” ranking:
In St. Louis Park, a black Honeywell physicist was threatened in 1952 with eviction because of his skin color. Local ministers rallied to allow Woodfin Lewis to remain.
In Austin, a packinghouse union worker told an oral historian how whites violently drove out black railroad workers in the 1920s. “Austin got a reputation for inhospitality toward blacks that persevered,” the web page says.
Up on the Iron Range, mining bosses insisted that “only the ‘best classes’ of people should live in Coleraine; this of course meant native stock Americans or those of western European origin,” Loewen’s website says.
In Granite Falls, where blacks were rare, white customers would stay away from barber shops that cut Dakota people’s hair.
The website cites a secondhand account behind its “probable sundown town” tag for Pine Island. And while it includes no comments on another “probable,” Stillwater, another history website says a 28-foot cross was burned in 1923 in Washington County — the joint work of Ku Klux Klan chapters in Stillwater and St. Paul. Stillwater was called the KKK’s state headquarters in a 1991 City Pages interview with group leaders.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at onminnesotahistory.com.