Marilyn Tate Johnson surprises people when she tells them that she grew up in the west-central Minnesota town of Fergus Falls. After all, hers was the only face of color among the 34 juniors surrounding her in the 1957 Fergus Falls High School yearbook.
“They still say, ‘You’re from where?’ ’’ said Johnson, 77, who grew up the fifth of eight siblings in the Otter Tail County seat. “But you know what? I might want my ashes sprinkled in Fergus Falls.”
A retired social worker for the Minneapolis schools and Ramsey County, Johnson enjoys a commanding view from her 10th-floor St. Paul apartment. But as a living link to the black history of Fergus Falls, she’s even prouder of her firsthand view back in time.
Her family was part of a pipeline that included a train car of 18 black families, numbering about 85 people, that relocated together from Campbellsville, Ky., to Fergus Falls on April 6, 1898. More soon followed.
The 1900 census shows 129 black and “colored” people in Otter Tail County when Minnesota was lily white. By 1910, the state’s black population numbered only 7,084 or about one-third of 1 percent.
How did the Campbellsville-to-Fergus Falls migration begin?
Historians point to an 1896 encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic — a Civil War reunion of sorts held in St. Paul. A few Fergus Falls real estate agents and the village’s Commercial Club printed fliers and circulated them at hotels. A delegation of black veterans from Kentucky attended the encampment, grew intrigued by the Fergus Falls pitch and sent up some scouts.
The influx from Kentucky gave Fergus Falls one of the highest concentrations of blacks in the state during the early 1900s, according to Missy Hermes, the education coordinator for the Otter Tail County Historical Society.
“It’s a rich, unique history,” said Hermes, who has extensively researched the area’s black history, which actually started decades before that train car pulled up in 1898.
Fergus Falls’ first black settler, Prince Albert Honeycutt, was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1852 and arrived in Fergus Falls in 1872 — the same year the village became chartered. (The town had been around since 1857 when a pioneer named Joe Whitford staked out the site and named it after his boss, James Fergus.)
As a child, Honeycutt served as a Civil War camp aide in Tennessee to Capt. James Compton of the Union Army. When Compton headed west after the war and settled along the Otter Tail River a decade later, Honeycutt came along.
“[H]e had a fine disposition and everybody always liked Prince during his long residence in Fergus Falls,” according to a 1933 article in the Fergus Falls Journal.
Honeycutt worked at the local flour mill, drove horses, volunteered as a firefighter and is considered the state’s first black baseball player and team organizer.
Honeycutt opened a barber shop by 1882. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1896 — finishing third with 130 votes or about 15 percent of the vote. He’s believed to be Minnesota’s first black mayoral candidate.
When he married a white woman in 1878, there was some brief outrage. After she died in childbirth four years into their marriage, Honeycutt remarried. Two of his daughters graduated from Fergus Falls High School and were trained as teachers in Moorhead.
Hermes said the Klu Klux Klan came out of Tennessee the same time as Honeycutt and the group was active in Fergus Falls in the 1870s — re-emerging in the 1920s. She said Honeycutt twice saw crosses burned before he died in 1924 at age 71.
Marilyn Tate Johnson’s grandparents, and her father who headed north as a toddler, would have known Honeycutt as part of the wave that left Kentucky for Fergus Falls around 1900. Her dad, W. David Tate, worked at the Fergus Falls Dairy and became a union leader. Her mother, Lorraine, was among the first nurses of color at the Fergus Falls State Hospital.
“We all grew up together in an all-white city, and we toed the mark,” Johnson said.
When a 1919 tornado wiped out much of Fergus Falls, jobs dried up and many black residents moved to larger cities. Marilyn Johnson remembers her friend Joyce leaving in ninth grade, making her the only black student in her class.
“We were the last ones from that early wave,” she said. “I went to prom in groups, not on a date, and I was never welcomed into the popular clique. But I mostly fit in just fine and did everything any other kids did.”
She left Fergus Falls when she turned 19, landing her master’s degree as a licensed social worker. But she regularly returns for class reunions. Descendants from the “First 85” held their own reunion in Fergus Falls in 2010.
In the latest population numbers from 2016, there are about 200 black people living in Fergus Falls — carrying on a rich legacy that spans nearly 150 years.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.