'Degrees of Freedom' Chronicles Black History in Minnesota during the Post-Civil War Era

By Goetzman, Amy | MinnPost.com, August 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Degrees of Freedom' Chronicles Black History in Minnesota during the Post-Civil War Era


Goetzman, Amy, MinnPost.com


Green says slavery came to Minnesota in part to discourage race mixing with another group of people, the Native Americans, who still made up a large part of the population. "Virtually every French trader had a Native American wife and children, and a large number of the troops at Fort Snelling were involved with Native American women as well. This didn't sit well with Calhoun, so he initiated a policy that encouraged wives to live at the fort to civilize the corps, and to purchase slaves in order to release wives from the drudgery of housekeeping in frontier conditions. So Calhoun was a patriarch of slavery and succession in the South and he also engineered to bring slavery to the north."

Green grew up in New Orleans, which he says almost pales in comparison when Minnesota's colorful history is examined. "Minnesota is otherworldly. I wanted to study abroad, so my parents sent me to Minnesota, and as a student at Gustavus I began to see this place as something entirely unique. The history here is amazing, particularly when you look at who was here before statehood and how they interacted with each other. I found that we were lacking a good accounting of the black people who were part of that history. Most of them didn't leave a written record, which looks like they had nothing to say, but of course they did. They were part of this experience."

In "A Peculiar Imbalance," Green writes about a meal served at Fort Snelling in which a black translator named Stephen Bonga, who worked closely with the Ojibwe, was served alongside important white political and military leaders -- by a slave named Dred Scott. What must it have felt like for a slave to serve an important, free black man, and what must Bonga have felt to see a person who looked like himself living life as the property of another person? "Do these two black men relate to each other? It is assumed that because they didn't write things down that they didn't think or their ideas didn't matter. It wasn't until the Appeal [a newspaper for for black readers] did blacks have a written record. …

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