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Column: Minnesota's best and worst examples of racial integration

By MYRLE B. COOPER, Guest Commentator

Most outstate Minnesota communities have admitted and confronted local racism, if only grudgingly. While Fergus Falls and Worthington are known nationally for effective integration, resettlement, stability and safety, St. Cloud is condemned for its last-place avoidance bigotry.

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Chronologically, St. Cloud was Minnesota’s first outstate community to receive a contingent of black residents. Poor Appalachian Confederates fleeing inevitable emancipation smuggled slaves up the Mississippi River to St. Cloud at night (1856-1859), defying Louisiana Purchase Free Territory policies and Minnesota’s Constitution prohibiting “slavery and involuntary servitude.”

St. Cloud’s “few dozen” secret slaves were exposed by abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm. As a result, her anti-slavery newspaper printing press was destroyed by local racists (1862). (“Sesquicentennial voices: Slaves no longer hidden in history;” St. Cloud Times, 12/29/2006)

St. Cloud’s one free b lack resident, Robert J. Cromwell, opened the African Saloon and Barbershop. Cromwell was attacked, beaten and his business burned. Naturally, Cromwell’s assailants were exonerated (1863).

One study of 250 college campuses and host community racism concluded, “The St. Cloud study implicates a hostile community and a campus that is equally hostile. Levels of ethnoviolence reported exceed those in any other campus or community we have reviewed. There is at St. Cloud a different normative structure than at any of the other universities studied.” (“Campus Ethnoviolence and Policy Options;” National Institute Against Prejudice & Violence, March 1990)

Black drivers in St. Cloud were stopped seven times more often without probable cause than others according a University of Minnesota Law School study presented to the Legislature (racial profiling in Hennepin County was only 4 to 1). Jail Surveys data reported blacks were arrested 75 percent more often than others and spent seven to fourteen days longer in jail. Local courts seat no black jurors. (“Study shows minority drivers more likely to be stopped;” St. Cloud Times, 9/26/2003)

Only Dr. Roy Saigo (2000-2007) among St. Cloud State’s 22 presidents dared to allow, encourage and publicize findings from independent studies of local racism. The Aspen Institute (2008) and Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute (2010) selected St. Cloud for studying pathological racism. Their conclusions were scathing. No St. Cloud mayor has ever mentioned racism in any State of the City address. No wonder St. Cloud State University (SCSU) retains and graduates only 5 percent of its total black students despite enrollment increases. (“Molotov cocktail used in attack: Another violent incident spurs students to question safety in St. Cloud and at SCSU;” University Chronicle, 11/16/1998; “SASSO/Somali community organization building firebombed;” St. Cloud Times, 11/17/2002)

In a frantic effort to divert attention from St. Cloud’s racist brand/image/reputation, a black police chief exponentially better qualified than his predecessors, was hired (2012). Blair Anderson is as vital to introducing equal justice and lowering St. Cloud’s state-high hate crime rates as was Macon County, Alabama’s first black sheriff, Lucius Amerson (1967).

Fergus Falls became Minnesota’s first outstate community to accept and peacefully integrate a contingent of blacks (1897). Real estate brochures distributed at a St. Paul Civil War veterans convention attracted black residents.

Prince Albert Honeycutt, among Fergus Falls’ “First 85,” opened a barbershop, thrived and received enough community support to later ran for mayor. Although many blacks left Fergus Falls during and after the Depression, those remaining celebrate their history and residency with pride. (“NorthStar: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers; Twin Cities Public Television, 2007)

Armour and Co. provided Worthington’s first group of blacks from Kansas City, Kan., and Lubbock, Texas (1965). In terms of an encouraging example of peaceful integration during 1960s racial and social turbulence, Worthington was a model. Based on demonstrated evidence of longevity, favorable news media coverage and stability, Worthington is still probably Minnesota’s best example of outstate ethnic/intercultural/racial integration.

As blacks were accepted, integrated, resettled and safely raised families in Fergus Falls and Worthington, they were steadfastly resisted in St. Cloud. (“Another carload of Negroes here: Police chase them out of town afterward-whites chased;” St. Cloud Daily Times; 8/9/1916; “Ku Klux Klan now at St. Cloud: Mysterious organization has invaded County seat and has 75 members;” Belgrade Tribune; 1/18/1923; “[U.S. Department of] “Justice official to test racial climate;” St. Cloud Times, 8/1/1998)

After Hurricane Katrina, some 400 mostly black refugees were scheduled for temporary resettlement amid several thousand blacks already in St. Cloud and surrounding counties. All were refused (2005).

While Black school children in Fergus Falls and Worthington may experience cultural isolation, schools were safe. St. Cloud’s Catholic schools were successfully sued for maltreating a black girl (2003). The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division found St. Cloud’s public schools guilty of maltreating Black students. (“Feds to investigate complaints from St. Cloud Somali students,” St. Cloud Times, 5/26/2010)

Black, Latino and Native American students at Worthington’s Minnesota West Community and Technical College may feel unique in southwest Minnesota, but administrators weren’t forced to admit, “Safety for students of color is a historic concern.” (“Is it safe to send our children to St. Cloud?” Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, 2/7/2007; “SCSU minority student reports ‘Nazi salute;’” Star Tribune, 12/18/07)

Unlike so many blacks who experienced what Martin Luther King called “non-redemptive” and “unearned” racial suffering, St. Cloud’s psychotic racism attracted a couple of black men who carefully exacted costly and demonstrable retaliation. Blatant racism demands punishment before diplomacy, indulgence and stoicism.

Last summer, SCSU was investigated by the FBI, Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division and Regional Inspector General for fraudulent inflation of Black student graduation numbers and illegal transcripts manipulations diverting attention from unusually high students of color attrition rates. (“At St. Cloud State, feds investigating reports of secret transcript changes;” Associated Press, 7/4/2013)

Worthington’s story is even more impressive because there are blacks and latinos who would likely return if opportunities existed. They still feel at home and safe whenever in town.

Myrle B. Cooper is a retired St. Cloud State faculty member. His email is