St. Paul barber Maurice Jernigan asked early Minnesota legislators to remove just one word from the state Constitution: white.
Original territorial and state constitutions restricted voting rights to free white males and “persons of a mixture of white and Indian blood” who “adopted all the habits and customs of civilized men.”
Seven years into statehood, Jernigan and a handful of fellow black barbers published an 1865 petition, essentially asking lawmakers, “What about us?” After all, Minnesota’s black population had grown from 39 in 1850 to 259 by 1860 to 700 in 1868.
The petition insisted the word “white” was not only “superfluous,” but a “mark of degradation … supporting the unilateral prejudice against us who have committed no crime save the wearing complacently the dark skin our Creator had seen fit in his all-wise providence to clothe us with.”
Black residents were paying taxes, they argued, and “presenting our black bosoms as a rampart to shield” the Union from Confederate forces in the Civil War that was drawing to a bloody close. By not allowing black men to vote, the 1865 petition said, “our white citizens have imposed a stigma upon us that dampens our ardor.”
But the first two attempts to enhance equality failed. Minnesota voters turned down the black suffrage question on the ballot in 1865 by 2,516 votes (54.7 to 45.3%). Voters again said no two years later in 1867, but the margin shrank by more than half to 1,315 votes (51.2 to 48.8%).
The third time proved the charm. Ten years into statehood and three years after the Civil War, Minnesota voters in 1868 finally agreed to allow black men to vote by more than 9,000 votes (56.7 to 43.3%). The state was two years ahead of the 15th Amendment that opened national voting rights to include black men. (Women would have to wait another 50 years).
“I welcome you to liberty and equality before the law. … I welcome you to your political enfranchisement,” Gov. William Marshall told a jubilant convention of “Colored Citizens of Minnesota” on New Year’s Day in 1869.
Jernigan, the petition-wielding barber, attended that convention and emerged as one of the “invisible” heroes in Minnesota’s early civil rights struggle, according to Augsburg University history Prof. William Green.
No photographs of Jernigan are known to exist, nor did he leave behind any writings. After his birth in North Carolina around 1831, Jernigan appears in neither census rolls nor city directories anywhere in the nation. So he vanished “within this fog of history,” writes Green, a former Minneapolis school superintendent and author of “Degrees of Freedom.” The University of Minnesota Press recently released a paperback version of his 2015 book about the origins of Minnesota’s civil rights struggle between 1865 and 1912.
In Green’s words, Jernigan “stepped from the shadows to become one of Minnesota’s first and most prominent” black activists. But “after only a few years of contributing to momentous events in the cause of racial equality, he returned to the anonymity of shadows” by 1870.
Green speculates that Jernigan was likely a fugitive slave and that’s why there’s such a scant record of his first 30 years.
His “survival was secured in his ability to remain nondescript,” Green said in an e-mail.
Jernigan had good reason “to live a life largely unseen if he had run away from his master,” Green said. In 1857, slave Dred Scott maintained he should be free because he lived at Fort Snelling in a non-slavery state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise, blessing slave owners’ control over their property even in free states.
Despite that infamous ruling, Jernigan stepped out — signing up for the federal draft and listing himself in St. Paul’s city directory in 1863, signing that 1865 suffrage petition and, in 1869, serving as one of the state’s first black jurors.
“He had reached the pinnacle of professional success, possibly becoming the best-known and wealthiest black Minnesotan, and certainly the most sought-after barber, black or white, working in the capital city,” Green writes.
Married in 1863 to a white woman named Alice, Jernigan helped found a group called the Sons of Freedom that fought against racial segregation in St. Paul schools, where less than half of the city’s black children attended classes.
All told, Jernigan helped organize the 1869 Convention of Colored Citizens, campaigned three times for black suffrage, advocated against school segregation and for jury equality.
Any of these contributions “could have represented a small claim to history,” Green said. “No black man in Minnesota could claim such service to black equality.”
But by 1870, Jernigan returned to the shadows.
Wrote Green: “The barber seemed to realize that a different, perhaps more assertive, tone of advocacy was needed.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.