In its financially troubled early years, the University of Minnesota leaned heavily on a wealthy South Carolina slave owner to stay afloat in the late 1850s.
St. Cloud State historian Christopher Lehman unearthed the long overlooked connection between the fledgling university and onetime South Carolina Gov. William Aiken Jr. while analyzing territorial real estate deeds.
“The University of Minnesota lives today thanks in no small part to hundreds of slaves on a plantation in Charleston,” Lehman writes in the current issue of Hennepin History magazine. “If unfree African Americans had not generated the planter’s wealth, he would not have possessed the funds to assist the institution.”
Flour milling magnate John Sargent Pillsbury, who became Minnesota’s eighth governor in 1876, has long been credited as the U’s savior. He joined the Board of Regents in 1863 and then spearheaded a three-man commission aimed at erasing the school’s debt.
Lehman, an expert on Minnesota’s slavery connections, not only makes the case that Aiken’s contributions predated Pillsbury’s, he accuses Pillsbury of starting a nearly 150-year-old coverup of the slave owner’s involvement. In its report to the governor in the 1860s, Pillsbury’s panel failed to mentioned Aiken’s early injection of thousands of dollars.
“Pillsbury initiated the erasure of Aiken from the university’s history,” Lehman says, adding that historians who followed proceeded to call the flour king the “father of the university.”
Aiken was 51 when he first ventured to Minnesota in the early summer of 1857. A few months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Dred Scott case that slave owners could maintain possession of their human property even in such non-slave territories as Minnesota.
That sparked a flow of Southerners heading north — seeking real estate opportunities and cooler places to relax in the summertime. Steamboat service made the treks easier — as did the money earned on the backs of slaves.
“Buying land while on vacation and returning to the South in the fall with real estate deeds in hand, these men became absentee landowners,” Lehman writes.
Aiken was wrapping up two decades of public service — as a legislator, governor and congressman — when he took his first Minnesota vacation. He checked into the upscale Fuller House in St. Paul and headed for the era’s popular tourist attraction: the cooling, ailment curing Falls of St. Anthony.
Not far away, the University of Minnesota was a one-building mess when Aiken visited in 1857. Dating back to 1851, the school had been closed for three years because of heavy construction debt.
“When Aiken saw the school, he immediately took pity on it,” Lehman says, advancing between $15,000 and $20,000 to the school and buying $8,000 in university bonds. In today’s dollars, that $28,000 infusion would be worth about $750,000.
Aiken could afford it. Thanks to the labor of his 878 slaves, he earned about $25,000 a year selling goods — nearly twice the $13,000 he spent annually to maintain his plantation. His slaves managed more than 200 livestock, grew 2,000 bushels of corn and 4,000 bushels of sweet potatoes each year on his South Carolina spread. “He had a reputation among Charleston’s slaves as a master who was not abusive,” Lehman writes, “but he profited handsomely from their labor.”
Aiken lived in a Gothic Revival mansion and housed his slaves in simple wooden homes. Southern critics blasted him for spending his money Up North instead of keeping his cash Down South as tensions escalated before the Civil War.
The financial Panic of 1857 made Aiken’s contributions a short-lived fix for the U. The school was open for only six months in 1858 because tuition fees failed to offset operating costs. Constructing one new wing of the university’s sole building ran up bills of nearly $50,000. Snowdrifts piled up at the incomplete construction site.
When South Carolina seceded from the Union — something Aiken opposed — and the Civil War broke out at Fort Sumter in 1861, the university was still in debt to the rich planter from Charleston. The four-year-old Minnesota Legislature passed the 1862 Rebellion Act, which barred Confederates from attempting to collect debts in state court.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional, but the school never paid back its Southern benefactor. Several histories of the university, and the school’s online archives, never mention Aiken.
“The omission of Aiken removes not only a central donor from the school’s history,” Lehman insists, “but also the crucial role of slave labor in the facility’s survival.”
Lehman, who has taught at St. Cloud State for 14 years, has written extensively about Minnesota’s links to slavery, including a book called, “Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley.” He said, via e-mail, that he first started compiling names of people kept as slaves in Minnesota in the 1850s.
“Last year I was looking at real estate deeds, and my ‘Eureka’ moment was my realization that some of the southerners who bought lots in Minnesota were slaveholders and that slavery allowed them to afford to buy those lands,” he said. “Governor Aiken’s loan to the U of M is just the latest monetary connection I’ve been able to find between African-American slavery and Minnesota real estate.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.