Dred Scott sued for his freedom after living here, and the Minnesota Constitution outlawed slavery before the 13th amendment.
Two commemorative events call to mind an often-overlooked part of Minnesota history: the presence of slavery.
One commemoration has been “Resilience Week,” a series of programs and forums focusing on the consequences of slavery pegged to the 400th anniversary of the first importation of slaves in what became Virginia.
The other is the 200th anniversary of the start of construction on Minnesota’s own Fort Snelling.
Despite long-standing laws and social practices antagonistic to slavery, the “peculiar institution,” as some Southerners euphemistically referred to it, did not leave Minnesota untouched. Minnesota was a “free” territory and became a free state in 1858, but slavery made its mark here and its role in Minnesota affected the whole country.
One of the major provocations that sparked the Civil War, the infamous Dred Scott case, began on Minnesota soil. The litigation concluded in 1857 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that African-Americans had no rights that warranted “respect”; that slaves were property, not “persons” entitled to legal protection; and that it was unconstitutional to bar or limit slavery even outside of the South.
The dreadful decision in Scott v. Sandford — later termed by scholars a “self-inflicted wound” and widely considered the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court — is also seen by many as a crucial catalyst of Abraham Lincoln’s return to politics after a respite following a single term in Congress a decade earlier.
The case concerned an African-American man, Dred Scott, enslaved to a military surgeon who spent a couple of years, 1836-38, at Fort Snelling. Scott lived with his wife and children, also slaves, in the basement of the building then used as an infirmary. The facility still stands on the site of the fort, which is marking its bicentennial this summer.
Scott subsequently sued for his freedom, claiming that his bondage was legally terminated because he had lived for a time in a free area, the pre-1858 statehood territory of Minnesota. This part of the country had been designated by early federal law, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, as off-limits to slavery, a designation confirmed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which barred slavery in the northern portion of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
After years winding through state and federal courts in Missouri, where the doctor had moved with the Scott family post-Fort Snelling, the case reached the nation’s highest court in the mid-1850s. After long and contentious hearings, it yielded the odorous opinion that helped to trigger the Civil War.
Incidentally, the jurist who authored the rancid ruling, Chief Justice Roger Taney, a former acolyte of President Andrew Jackson (and his attorney general), had his statue unceremoniously removed in late 2016 from the state capital building in his home state of Maryland.
But Dred Scott was not the only African-American litigant who made legal history in Minnesota during that period. A number of wealthy Southerners would escape torrid summers on their plantations in those years and take voyages up the Mississippi River, vacationing at resorts that sprouted along the banks of the river, especially in the nascent St. Anthony area and around some of the lakes that dotted the region. One of their favorite haunts was the Winslow House, a hotel near where the St. Anthony Main facility currently stands and the namesake of the high-rise condominium complex there today.
The visitors from below the Mason-Dixon Line brought some of their slaves with them, mainly domestic servants. One of them, known as Eliza Winston, encouraged by a local free African-American man, escaped bondage. In August 1860, a state trial court judge, unlike Taney, deemed her free as a result. In the face of threatened vigilante action by slavery supporters to restore her to her master, she was spirited away to Canada, on a version of Harriet Tubman’s legendary Underground Railroad that transported slaves from the South to freedom in the North.
Minnesota Territory had been home to about three dozen African-Americans in 1850. The census that year recorded 39 of them among the territory’s 6,600 residents. A decade later, two years after statehood, the census reflected 259 African-Americans in a population of 172,000. The number of African-Americans had increased more than sixfold, yet they made up a substantially smaller portion of the population after the miniboom of the 1850s.
More than 100 African-American soldiers from Minnesota served in the Union Army (among the 25,000 troops the state contributed to the cause) a remarkably high percentage of the total African-Americans, including women and children, in the state at the time.
Despite Dred Scott, African-Americans were legally guaranteed freedom in Minnesota. The Minnesota Constitution provided in Article I, Section 2 that “no slavery or involuntary servitude” would be allowed, terminology that presaged the wording of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting slavery at the end of the Civil War.
Another Minnesota law that affected more than Minnesotans, the Equal Accommodations Act of 1885, barred racial discrimination in access to public facilities and hotels. Enacted 20 years after slavery was abolished, the measure was a model for the federal Civil Rights Act enacted nearly 80 years later.
The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in America was one of the three Civil War amendments, along with the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship, due process of law and equal protection to all persons born or naturalized in this country, and the 15th extending the right to vote regardless of race, but still confined only to men.
The first two Civil War amendments were quickly and overwhelmingly approved by the necessary two-thirds of the states. But the voting rights amendment was greeted initially with antipathy, especially here in Minnesota. Voters in this state twice defeated measures to amend the state Constitution to allow African-American males to vote, first in 1865 shortly after the war ended and again two years later. The outcome was close both times. Similar measures were defeated in six other states around that time, including neighboring Wisconsin.
It was not until 1868, three years after the war ended, that Minnesotans approved a colorblind electorate by a 9,000 vote margin, two years before the 15th Amendment went into effect. A year later, the state enacted a law prohibiting racial segregation in public schools in St. Paul, where most of the state’s African-Americans then lived. By that time there were some 750 African-Americans, referred to as “Colored,” recorded in the 1870 census.
Minnesota’s adoption of the post-Civil War measures reflected Lincoln’s earlier praise for the state, which he never visited. Welcoming to the White House one of the two new senators from the new state (elected at that time by the state Legislature), he sagaciously observed that “the people up your way have very correct political views.”
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian.