On a day in May 1875, a few dozen Black residents of Hastings celebrated passage of a new federal civil rights law allowing African Americans to serve on juries and protecting their Reconstruction-era rights to public accommodations and transportation.
"Everything is lovely in Hastings," the Stillwater Gazette reported, noting that two Black leaders delivered speeches at Germania Hall and that the evening closed "with a dance, both colors freely intermingling."
Two months earlier, the Hastings Gazette had reported on a local literary and debating club, "composed of American citizens of African descent" aiming at "intellectual power" for which they had only "to reach forth and possess."
Those upbeat snippets tell only part of the surprisingly rich Black history of Hastings, a Mississippi River town that 40 African Americans called home in 1870. Their back stories from days on Virginia plantations were far less rosy, tinged with rape, murder and brutal treatment. Even in Hastings, arson claimed a Black church in 1907 and 200 robed Ku Klux Klan members marched through town in 1925.
Nancy Dungeon Wallace and her niece Phoebe Ella Curry have emerged as central characters in Hastings' early Black history. In what was likely a harrowing journey to Minnesota, Nancy followed her enslaved husband, John Wallace, who had killed his overseer after being denied water before connecting with Union soldiers from Company F of the Third Minnesota Regiment. The soldiers helped him get to Hastings, where John paid a white man $100 to bring Nancy and their two sons to Minnesota. They arrived after one of the boys was "taken away from her" in St. Louis, according to family history and a neighbor's account from the 1960s.
"Whether 'taken away' means he died or was stolen is not clear," said Heidi Langenfeld, 82, a researcher who's spent hundreds of hours scouring genealogy records to unearth much of Hastings' Black history.
Langenfeld has chronicled a century-long arc of African Americans in Hastings, from barber Robert Burns in 1857 to 74-year-old Henry Thomas, the city's lone Black resident when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1954. Hastings' Black population peaked in 1870 at 40; today the city's total population has grown nearly sevenfold to 23,200, but the percentage of African Americans remains under 1.5%, or nearly 350.
Langenfeld recently combined forces with two Wallace and Curry descendants who live in the Minneapolis area: retired corrections consultant Greg McMoore and James Curry, a filmmaker who teaches at Augsburg University. They met in 2019, more than 150 years after Nancy and Phoebe Ella first crossed paths. The trio presented a Zoom talk last week through the Dakota County Library, painting a detailed picture of how their families wound up in Hastings.
Their information says Phoebe Ella Curry — often referred to as Ella — was the offspring of Nancy's sister after she was raped by her slave master. By 1885, Phoebe, her husband James Curry and two daughters had made the trek to Hastings to join her Aunt Nancy in the Wallace home on W. 4th Street.
In the early 1890s, the Wallace and Curry families helped found Brown's Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in Hastings. John Wallace was elected the first treasurer and James Curry was elected secretary. Their wives, Nancy and Phoebe Ella, lacked formal titles but doubtless played key roles in the church's inception. Several women are shown in a photo of early Brown's Chapel congregants snapped around 1900.
"Experience has taught us the necessity of having a place of our own," the Rev. J.C. Anderson of West St. Paul wrote in an 1891 letter to the Hastings Gazette, "where we may become permanently situated and worship God according to the dictates of our own consciences without shame or fear."
He was likely referring to a racial slur hollered out during the Curry children's baptisms at an earlier mixed-race church in Hastings.
In 1907, just after the Black church's 15th anniversary, an arsonist cut through a screen window, poured kerosene on the floor and pews and set it on fire. The culprit was never found, and within two years, the church — which was uninsured — was sold to a local lumber company for $300.
"I often try to imagine what the discussion was when the Wallaces and Currys broke bread that night of the fire — and how the talk around their table might compare to what we're talking about today," said McMoore, 68.
Nancy's granddaughter, Rebecca Elsie Wallace, graduated from Hastings High School in 1912 before moving to south Minneapolis, where many of her descendants still live — including McMoore, her grandson. His kids make up the family's sixth generation in Minnesota.
"Resilient is a word I use to describe our family, which through it all, has embraced Minnesota," McMoore said. "As a family, we've always valued doing the right thing, and that's been something passed down."
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.