ALBERT LEA, MINN. – Hannah Goodemann recalls learning that her city was named for a man with a divisive past during a school field trip to the Freeborn County Historical Museum.
But Goodemann and other longtime residents of this city of 18,000 people say that Albert Lea's allegiance to the slaveholding South is seldom mentioned.
Lea was a Tennessean who served as a Confederate lieutenant colonel several decades after he surveyed parts of what became southern Minnesota for the U.S. Army in 1835. There's a bust of him at the county museum, but he's buried 900 miles away, down Interstate 35, in Corsicana, Texas.
"I think it would be interesting to open up that dialogue and see what other people in the community think," said Goodemann, 22, a bartender and community activist.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., is trying to remove names of Confederate generals from military bases, and rebel statues are tumbling from Texas to Virginia. After George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis police custody, some racial justice advocates say such symbols glorify the forces that fought to preserve slavery.
Yet the debate about the place of Confederate names in 21st-century America has largely bypassed Albert Lea, far from the places where slavery helped drive the Civil War.
"I don't know that really as a community we've talked about Albert Lea. … I would venture to guess that most people in town don't even know," said Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr.
Rasmussen grew up in southern Minnesota but said he didn't hear much about Albert Lea's Confederate ties until 2015, when a volunteer firefighter flew a Confederate flag on the back of a Hartland, Minn., fire truck during an Independence Day parade in Albert Lea.
The incident spurred controversy at a time when South Carolina officials were looking to remove the Confederate flag at their statehouse after a white supremacist's shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston.
Rasmussen said one of the City Council's goals is to improve outreach and inclusiveness with the community, adding that "the most important thing for us to do is to continue to work on our race relations." If Albert Lea doesn't welcome everyone, he said, it won't grow.
The city is 91% white, 14% Hispanic or Latino (including some whites), 3% Asian, and 2% black, and the school system is rapidly growing even more racially diverse.
"The name itself, I don't think in our community has any negative or positive connotation," said Rasmussen. "It's really just a name. … I think [changing it] is a lot of money and time spent, and I'm not sure it would benefit us as much as it would to try to build a receptive community to everyone."
Melissa Schmidt, 41, said she agrees with the mayor. Lea's Confederate service, she said, "had nothing to do with what he did in Albert Lea at the time."
An uncomfortable past
Lea was born in 1808 in Knoxville, Tenn., and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He served as a lieutenant in the First Regiment of the U.S. Dragoons at Fort Des Moines and was assigned in 1835 to a topographical expedition of Michigan Territory, spanning what became northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.
He helped map the region and published a pamphlet the following year that was credited with drawing waves of settlers to the brand-new Wisconsin Territory and also gave Iowa its name. French cartographer Joseph Nicollet later renamed Fox Lake after Lea, and the town that sprang up around the lake in the 1850s took on the name, too.
Lea went on to a wide-ranging career, including a stint as acting secretary of war under President Millard Fillmore. He was living in Texas when the Civil War broke out in 1861 and joined the Confederate army, even though his son, Edward, was a Union naval officer. In 1863, Lea saw Edward die after Confederate soldiers attacked the boat where he was chief officer near Galveston, Texas.
By 1874, with Minnesota a solidly Union state and the wounds of the Civil War still fresh, some Albert Lea residents were making an effort to change the city's name. They were opposed by a group that protested vigorously in the Freeborn County Standard that a change would lead to postal confusion and force Albert Lea to build its reputation under a new name.
Lea, they wrote, was only "a subordinate officer of the government at the time of the expedition, possessed of a keen appreciation of his position." They praised the town's historical origins and how Lea had dwelled enthusiastically in his writings on the area's beauty: "Must it be set aside because Mr. Lea, unfortunately, lived in the South when the war broke out?"
The name stayed. After the war, Lea opened a bookstore in Galveston and served as city engineer. The Standard trumpeted his visit to Albert Lea in 1879, stating his Confederate ties matter-of-factly: "On the breaking out of the rebellion [he] offered his services to the confederacy, which were accepted. He served the rebel cause in various capacities."
While in town, Lea delivered an address before 3,500 people at the annual reunion of the Old Settlers of Freeborn County, but he made no mention of the Civil War. He died in 1891.
'History is history'
A week after Floyd's death, Goodemann organized a rally in Albert Lea demanding justice that drew at least 200 people outside the county courthouse. She said she received some backlash afterward, with messages accusing her of being anti-cop and associated with anti-fascist activists.
Lisa Hanson, 55, said she didn't think Albert Lea's Confederate past "is necessarily something that anyone is real proud of," but doesn't represent the community she loves.
"Albert Lea does not represent this Confederate soldier," said Hanson, owner of the Interchange Wine and Coffee Bistro. "Yes, it was named after him, but I think in no way do we see ourselves … as following in his footsteps."
Shawn Biggins, a 30-year-old customer at the Interchange, said he couldn't see why it would be a problem to rename the city. "But I think a lot of people around here wouldn't take too kindly to that," he said; it's a conservative area and "seem[s] to not like change very much."
At the Conger Meat Market downtown, behind-the-counter employee Tammy Eggum, 58, voiced dismay at efforts to remove Confederate names from military bases. She said her son is in the military and did his basic training in Georgia at Fort Benning, named for a Confederate general.
History must be preserved good and bad, she said, and that includes keeping Albert Lea's name.
"History is history — it should stay where it is," she said.
"History can be ugly," agreed customer Julie Sorenson, 54, a school district worker. But eliminating Confederate names and statues, she said, "doesn't erase it."