African American Heritage: Points of Entry

Tour curated by: From "Points of Entry: The African American Heritage Guide to Saint Paul," by CultureBrokers Foundation, Inc. 2008

Minnesota's African American history begins with pioneers who trapped, traded and developed lasting relationships with the Indian nations. In the 1790s, Pierre Bongo (Bonga or Bungo), a free black fur trader, came to the territory and married an Ojibwe woman. Their son, George Bonga, born in 1802, was Minnesota's first recorded African American birth. George became a fur trader, too, as well as an important interpreter who helped negotiate agreements between the Ojibwe and the U.S.

From these beginnings shaped by economic opportunity and relative freedom, Minnesota's African American history was forged. This tour highlights Saint Paul's history as a point of entry for African Americans who came seeking new beginnings and new paradigms from which to create new lives. Here are just some of the stories of individuals and institutions that helped to shape Minnesota's capital city.

Locations for Tour

The first significant point of entry for African Americans was in bondage to officers stationed at Fort Snelling. Although slavery was never legal in Minnesota, Army officers were allowed to bring their slaves into the territory. Once here, some…

- Saint Paul Early Settler, 1799-1884 - James Thompson arrived at Fort Snelling as a slave in 1827. He married an Ojibwe woman and learned the language. In the 1830s, he was hired by missionary Alfred Brunson as an interpreter. Thompson's…

(1831-1900) When the steamboat Northern arrived in 1863 carrying labor and equipment to defuse a Dakota Indian uprising, it also towed a raft of 76 ex-slaves that had been found drifting. The ex-slaves (considered contraband at the time) called…

In the 1800s Saint Paul served as the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. The lower landing provided entry for most of the people and goods coming North. Like many early groups to the region, African Americans settled near the river banks to…

Even though pre-Civil War legislation attempted to restrict the movement of African Americans to Minnesota, free blacks and fugitive slaves continued to come. The highest concentration of blacks resided in the downtown commercial districts where jobs…

- Minnesota's First African American Lawyer (1861-1912) - One long-gone home, at 665 University Ave., was the residence of African-American leader Frederick McGhee. The McGhee home was a showplace. The large wooden home had open porches and a…

Many skilled black artisans were recruited to Saint Paul to work on buildings going up in the early 1900s. Many of them arrived from Georgia with the marble used in those buildings. Casiville Bullard, a master stonemason, helped build such Saint Paul…

A block from Rice Park stands the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Renamed in 1984 for the executive director of the NAACP and longtime civil rights advocate, the auditorium has been an important venue for live entertainment since 1932. Entertainers booked…

- A Powerful Political Influence (1874-1969) - Nellie Griswold Francis, wife to William T. Francis (the first black to receive a diplomatic appointment), was a strong political influence in her own right. After leaving her job at West Publishing…

People arriving in Saint Paul between 1900 and 1940 generally came by train through the Union Depot. In its heyday, this neoclassical structure served 282 trains and 20,000 passengers daily. The depot is significant both as a point of entry for…

The State Capitol and Mall represent an interesting political history for Minnesota's African Americans. In 1868, the state's black population reached 759 people. That year, the state amended its constitution to allow blacks to vote in…

Most of the original Rondo Avenue and much of the historic Rondo neighborhood were destroyed when Interstate 94 was built. The street was named for an early settler, Joseph Rondeau. Part of the original street is now the frontage road near the Best…

In 1914 the Union Hall Association was created to meet the needs of the growing black community and to improve relationships with the white community. It built the Hallie Q. Brown Community House between Mackubin and Kent to house its programs. The…

The first employment services for African Americans seeking entry into the local workforce were delivered out of barbershops and beauty parlors. Most important of these was the Hall Brothers Barbershop. S. Edward and O.C. Hall serviced white…

Located on the north side of Selby Avenue between Virginia and Farrington Streets, this pleasant, tree-filled square-block park honors St Paul's outstanding African American union leader. In 1973 the Ramsey Hill Association proposed naming the…

The intersection of Lexington and Marshall represents two points of entry by African Americans: education and athletic achievement. In Saint Paul, access to educational institutions was generally available to African Americans, resulting in one of…