How Times of Crisis Have Defined Minnesota

From early tragedies to COVID-19 and George Floyd, the state’s story is still being written
Martin Luther King after his assassination in 1968
Marchers in North Minneapolis remember Martin Luther King after his assassination in 1968

Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The COVID-19 pandemic had upended daily life around the world in a way not felt in a century.

“We are used to long winters in Minnesota,” Gov. Tim Walz said in his State of the State speech in early April. “We are resilient people with a deep reserve of courage, optimism, and grit. But this will be a winter like we’ve never seen before.”

The governor was right on all counts. The profound impact of history has been felt before in this state, whether from the hand of nature or from our own.

The uprising following the Minneapolis Police killing of George Floyd would soon spur a worldwide call for even more change. Much is still uncertain, but it is clear that our state is undergoing something monumental.

Some challenges have been felt simultaneously throughout the nation and the world, and others are unique to our state. Within Minnesota, all residents do not face the same hurdles. History tells us that “getting through” a crisis does not assure it can’t, or won’t, happen again. While there are moments in our history upon which we can look back and celebrate resilience, hope, and ingenuity, there are also darker chapters. Minnesotans of color in particular have faced disproportionate challenges for generations and still face some of the highest inequities in the nation.

Combing through events that have defined us, we found the seemingly insurmountable, the bitterly concluded, and the achingly ongoing. The point, though, has been in finding a next step—sometimes taken many, many years later. See for yourself.

Who We Are

Chief Little Crow led Dakota bands in the 1862 conflict
Chief Little Crow led Dakota bands in the 1862 conflict

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Human activity in the geographic region that is now Minnesota dates back roughly 10,000 years, according to archaeologists. Native people found an abundance of food sources and waterways, and developed trade and nations—to the north, the Ojibwe, and to the south, the Dakota. The Dakota creation story asserts that this is where life began, and they and other Tribal Nations have endured hardship to remain here. Conflicts and injustices have decimated Minnesota’s Native population, which sits at about 1% of the state total.

Explorers and settlers in the mid-19th century sent word back to Scandinavia about the region’s beauty and resources, sparking a wave of immigration from there and elsewhere in Europe. Today, about 80% of Minnesota’s 5.7 million residents identify as white. In the 20th century, the state established greater Black (6.8%) and Latinx (5.5%) populations. In recent decades, immigrant communities from Southeast Asia and East Africa have grown in Minnesota, as well.

Our “flyover” state has produced leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, educators, and activists who have shaped the world. From the Dakota and Ojibwe Natives to today’s mosaic of residents, living in Minnesota has continued to mean enduring. Even during extreme winters, many keep an eye on neighbors and loved ones. At our best, we pull together when it’s time to come back from a calamity.

Outwardly, Minnesotans have rallied around an accepting, open-minded culture with an emphasis on fairness and the greater good. This has led to a “progressive” reputation. Among the pillars of personal and social resilience most often cited by psychologists, Minnesota has founded that reputation on optimism, care for others, an emphasis on faith and purpose, and strong social connections. It’s who we say we are.

“The fact is that we are all intending to work for the collective good of the people who live here, omaa akiing, here on this land,” Winona LaDuke wrote in MinnPost earlier this year. “At the close of the day, we are all pretty closely related and we certainly drink the same water and breathe the same air.”

As recent events prove, being well-intentioned takes us only so far when many are left behind. As we forge ahead, we need to keep asking ourselves, “Who do we want to become?”

A message left behind by a protester seeking justice for George Floyd in 2020
A message left behind by a protester seeking justice for George Floyd in 2020

Photo by Mike Madison

The Injustices

Some of our worst disasters to date are human-made. Minnesotans have manufactured hardship by failing to live up to our ideals. In the process, we’ve excluded, traumatized, and killed. Our history, as well as our present, includes violence, injustice, and blindness to our shared nature.

The Dakota War that spanned the months of August to December of 1862 is also known as the Dakota Uprising. Just four years after Minnesota became the 32nd state, a series of treaty disputes and armed conflicts led to deaths among settlers and Native peoples. Settlers left the region, and government forces captured hundreds of Dakota men and interned their families at Fort Snelling.

Lithograph of the execution of 38 Dakota men,
Lithograph of the execution of 38 Dakota men,

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Beginning later that year, hundreds of Dakota men were brought to trial—some lasting only minutes—and 303 prisoners were convicted and sentenced to execution. Although President Lincoln  commuted the majority of the death sentences, the Army hanged 38 Dakota men on December 26.

The mass execution in Mankato was performed on a single platform, and the bodies were buried in a mass grave. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

By the time the remaining convicted men were released four years later, a third of them had died, and their families had already been expelled by force from Minnesota. While many settlers had left the Minnesota River valley during the uprising, another wave began farming after the Civil War. 

It was 100 years ago, in June, that six African American circus workers were accused of assault and rape and arrested in Duluth. When news spread, a white mob stormed the jail, and Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were seized, beaten, and hanged in front of a crowd. No one was ever charged for their murders.

Martin Kambaki protests amid the pandemic
Martin Kambaki protests amid the pandemic

Photo by Mike Madison

Decades later, African Americans led an uprising in North Minneapolis in June of 1967. That summer, amid widening racial disparities in jobs, housing, and city services, a group set buildings on fire on Plymouth Avenue. In a chain of events that rings familiar today, the National Guard was called in, and the media reported on outside agitators.

Our higher selves hope that the arc of history bends toward justice and equality, but we haven’t reached our goals. Redlining and covenant practices in the Twin Cities promoted racial segregation and have limited opportunities for African Americans for decades. The Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, once a thriving center for business and culture, was essentially demolished in the late 1960s for the I-94 freeway, displacing more than 500 families and wrecking social cohesion.

In the past two decades, a record of nearly 200 people—more than a third of whom were people of color—have died at the hands of Minnesota law enforcement, according to the Star Tribune. Among them are David Smith, Terrance Franklin, Jamar Clark, Thurman Blevins, Travis Jordan, and Philando Castile.

Justice for George Floyd protesters gathered at the State Capitol
Justice for George Floyd protesters gathered at the State Capitol

Photo by Kristin Gantman

George Floyd joined that list in late May after video of a Minneapolis Police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes went viral. All four officers involved at the scene were fired, but the delay to bring charges against them ignited an uprising that spread across the Twin Cities and outwardly. We are just beginning to see how the aftermath of Floyd’s killing affects the use of deadly force, the role of police, and the practices that citizens use, in all communities, to live safely.

One thing is certain: Racism has stolen the lives of Minnesotans, and it is not just a problem of the past.        

As St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told Minnesota Monthly in 2018: “One thing we know about trust—whether it’s the trust between police and neighbors, the trust in a relationship, the trust in a family, or between friends—is that it takes 100 years to build and can be utterly destroyed in a moment.”

World War I soldiers in the hospital at Fort Snelling in 1918
World War I soldiers in the hospital at Fort Snelling in 1918

Courtesy Stearns History Museum

The Pandemic

The year of 1918 was one of hardships—hardships that reverberate more than a century later. That year’s flu pandemic threw the world into crisis. It saw roughly a third of the global population infected. An estimated 50 million of them died, including about 675,000 in the U.S. Among them, the disease claimed more than 10,000 Minnesotans.

The state’s first reported case was a World War I soldier home on leave. (The war, sending citizens overseas and back, was a major factor in spreading the virus.) In a 10-day span, Fort Snelling, in St. Paul, went from one flu patient to 850. Some victims who were said to be healthy in the morning were dead by the evening. As fear gripped the state, public officials were inconsistent in responses—such as shutting schools and theaters—and messages were mixed between Twin Cities health officials and leaders.

Members of the Red Cross Motor Corps. deliver supplies in Minneapolis
Members of the Red Cross Motor Corps. deliver supplies in Minneapolis

Many public spaces were closed, to combat the spread of the virus. According to the National Institutes of Health, “while some accepted the changes imposed on them, others protested regulations that they considered unfair. Some called for more-stringent methods, while others blatantly broke the new rules that were intended to protect them.”

As more soldiers returned to Minnesota, a second wave of influenza began. Large numbers of the state’s doctors and nurses were overseas to serve the war effort, limiting their numbers back home. Others were sick themselves, or afraid of the disease. Quite a few were called to northern Minnesota after a forest fire seared through 38 communities between Duluth and Hibbing and killed more than 400 people.

WWI nurses prepare bandages in St. Cloud
WWI nurses prepare bandages in St. Cloud

Courtesy Library of Congress, American National Red Cross Collection

The disease spread through the winter and into 1919. Native American communities were hit particularly hard. The pandemic subsided, but influenza returned seasonally. The first publicly available flu vaccine wouldn’t arrive until 1945.

As University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said just two years ago, “the possibility that we could have a 1918-type pandemic again is very real.” We have realized that possibility.

COVID-19 has an unknown trajectory today, and the 1918 crisis offered arguably greater uncertainty. The hope is that better days prevail, as they did then.

Severe flooding on the Minnesota-North Dakota border in 1997
Severe flooding on the Minnesota-North Dakota border in 1997

FEMA/Michael Rieger

The Wrath of Nature

Nothing in life is guaranteed, and in its time as a state, Minnesota has been hard hit by natural disasters. Our climate invites blizzards, floods, and punishing warm-weather storms. Occasionally, these have pushed residents to the edge of despair.

In 1886, an April 14 tornado was one of the most devastating events the young state had ever seen, the deadliest to date. Much of the town of Sauk Rapids was destroyed in its wake, and major damage was recorded in St. Cloud and Rice. In all, 72 people lost their lives on a day that also saw major tornadoes in Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. The situation on the ground was so dire that Benedictine nuns in Rochester reportedly worked two days straight on the injured before help arrived from the Twin Cities.

Tornado damage in Sauk Rapids in 1886
Tornado damage in Sauk Rapids in 1886

Courtesy Stearns History Museum

Drought and soil mismanagement in the 1930s resulted in the Dust Bowl, the greatest natural disaster Minnesota has ever faced, with farm failures and gigantic dust storms pummeling the entire Midwest, killing thousands of people and livestock alike.

In a memoir of the time, Minnesota survivor Lawrence Shaub describes what it was like from a young boy’s point of view: “I can remember being frightened by the darkness during supposedly daylight hours. You could hear the wind howling outside and the dust and dirt blowing through the windows.”

The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940
The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940

Courtesy Stearns History Museum

The extreme winters that draw us together turned deadly during the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. This bizarre day, on November 11, began with temperatures close to 65 degrees. That didn’t last. As the day progressed, the Upper Midwest was blasted with high winds, rain, snow, and even a tornado. Snowfall hit the next day, too, ranging from 16 inches to more than two feet. The air was so cold that it was painful to breathe. The storm caught everyone by surprise, from schoolchildren to hunters, and a total of 146 deaths were recorded.

In recent memory, the calamitous flooding of the Red River in 1997 was one of the most severe in Minnesota’s history. The unexpected cresting reached a height, at some locations, as high as 54 feet. Then, at the peak of the danger and loss, fires broke out across the North Dakota border in downtown Grand Forks and spread to three blocks, burning flooded buildings and compounding the crisis.

Today, scientists indicate that Minnesota’s climate is changing, basically becoming warmer and wetter, while state agencies plan for impacts on energy, the economy, and public health.

Navy divers conduct rescues after the I-35 bridge collapse

Courtesy U.S. Navy

Responding and Rebuilding

There’s no promise of a silver lining, and the lessons we learn from tragedies cannot undo the struggles endured. And yet there are times when Minnesota has rebounded with action and innovation.

Think of Mayo Clinic. Today, the Rochester institution is regarded as the greatest hospital in the world. Go back to its origins, though, and you’ll find the wreckage of a single storm. In August of 1883, the blistering heat of a summer day turned fearful in the evening. The tornado that developed wiped out much of Rochester and the surrounding area. Hundreds were injured, and dozens died.

Homemade sign at a temporary memorial site
Homemade sign at a temporary memorial site

Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The funnel cloud narrowly missed brothers William and Charles Mayo, who reportedly sheltered in a blacksmith’s shop. Rochester had no hospital, so they and their father, William Worrall Mayo—all doctors—led the town’s efforts to treat the injured at a local lodge and dance hall.

That improvised facility inspired Mother Mary Alfred Moes’ crusade for a permanent hospital in town, with the Mayos as the primary physicians. Mother Alfred Moes and the Rochester Franciscan Sisters opened St. Mary’s Hospital in 1889. In 1914, the hospital expanded and took on the name known worldwide.

Also, think about the Department of Natural Resources. In response to a 1910 fire that engulfed 300,000 acres near Minnesota’s northern border and killed between 27 and 42 people, Forestry Commissioner C. C. Andrews took up a dual cause: active forest management and conservation. The next year, the state created the Minnesota Forest Service. Eventually, that grew into the Department of Natural Resources.

Back in 1997, during the Red River flood that inundated parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba, Minnesotans responded with support for their neighbors. Billions invested in Red River flood-control initiatives, along with new forecasting practices involving river gauges and satellite data, made another record-setting Red River flood in 2009 far less disastrous.

During rush hour on a blistering August day later in 2007, the I-35 bridge in downtown Minneapolis suddenly and catastrophically failed, injuring 145 and killing 13 people. Volunteers joined first responders to help the wounded. Though poor design, not deferred maintenance, was cited as the collapse’s main cause, it was a wakeup call that led to increased efforts to repair bridges statewide.

Remarkably, the bridge’s replacement opened just a little more than a year later, with an interfaith memorial service and a Remembrance Garden off West River Parkway in Minneapolis.

Justice for George protesters on Lake Street in Minneapolis
Justice for George protesters on Lake Street in Minneapolis

Photo by Mike Madison

Strength Ahead

We remember. A monument in Grand Forks commemorates the high-water marks from the Red River flood. Another, established in 2003 in Duluth, memorializes the three Black men hanged there in 1920. In downtown Minneapolis, the Mill City Museum grew from the ruins of the Washburn “A” flour mill explosion of 1878, which killed 18 workers. A community effort is underway to create a Peace Garden to commemorate the spirit of Philando Castile. And a planned renovation of the Dale Street bridge in St. Paul aims to better connect the Rondo area split by the interstate.

In the past several decades, Native people in Minnesota have reconnected with the traditions of their ancestors. Springing from the American Indian Movement’s foundation in the late ’60s, legislation has aimed to support cultural freedom, education, self-governance, tribal sovereignty, activism, culinary and visual arts, and commerce.

The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth

Provided

In the days of COVID-19 and following the uprising in George Floyd’s name, we have looked out for one another. Donations of funds, time, food, and supplies have helped many displaced citizens and shuttered businesses. We often rank at or near the top in metrics of charitable giving and volunteering. Our diverse communities work for equalities and cultural recognition. We don’t need a crisis to spur us to help, listen, and build, but we also have a shared past that offers reassurance.

“Understanding history matters more than ever in times like these,” says Minnesota Historical Society director Kent Whitworth. “It is a lens through which we view the experiences of others and empathize with their struggles and triumphs … It challenges us to demand better from our community, from our civic and cultural institutions, and, perhaps most importantly, from ourselves.”

History echoes. Hardships hit with enough severity to make those caught in the currents doubt their resilience. But resilience rises, perhaps slowly at times. It acknowledges loss and remembers what can’t be forgotten. And it hopes there are better times ahead.

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