RED WING -- A line from a ninth grader's 1889 notebook reads "The Caucasian are the most enlightened." Below that line another reads "The Malay are the least enlightened."
Those are just a couple examples historian Frederick Johnson gave during a presentation at the Goodhue County Historical Society titled "A Malignant Legacy: Evolving Attitudes of White Minnesotans Toward Fellow Black Citizens." Johnson is a former teacher who graduated from Red Wing High School in the 1950s.
"Years ago I created the Red Wing area African-American History Project with the support of the Duff foundation and the Jones Foundation of Red Wing," the local historian said Wednesday. "It produced a book, some magazine articles and curriculum for Red Wing Senior High School about African American history. It was well received. I wanted to follow up on that today."
He spoke about the Densmore brothers, who volunteered for service in the Civil War and transported freed slaves to Red Wing. According to Johnson, the brothers did that because their parents said they needed help with workers because all the men went off to war.
The African Americans worked as barbers, with the most prominent one being Eli Fields, who had a shop in the basement of the St. James hotel.
"Slaves could not be educated in the South. It was against the law," Johnson said. "They didn't have many skilled jobs they could apply for. Barbering was one -- it was an accepted service you could offer whites or blacks without any kind of fear of retribution."
Women's suffrage activist Julia B. Nelson spent 20 years teaching freedmen in the South after the Civil War. Jeremiah Patterson came to one of her schools from Tennessee and later relocated to Goodhue County to operate Nelson's farm.
"Julia had a problem in that she's a widow and needed an income. She owns a farm in Belvidere, so she decided instead of having a local man run the farm, she thought Jeremiah would be a good man to come to Red Wing and run the farm," Johnson said.
Patterson married Verna Gaylord from Belvidere and raise nine children. Their eldest son was the first African American graduate of Red Wing Central High School.
Johnson then spoke about some of the lesser known factors that influenced Minnesotans when it came to black citizens.
"Minstrels started in the deep South as entertainment, with white men donning blackface and doing songs and dancing for audiences," he said. "It was such a permanent and indelible legacy that was imprinted on people who saw minstrel acts."
During the 1870s-90s, Red Wing played host to a number of traveling minstrel acts because performers found a welcoming and wealthy audience. It became popular in many communities during that time to hold fundraisers with minstrel shows.
"They were funny totally at black people's expense," he said. "So the minstrel image became part of the white view of black people."
Red Wing also saw activity from the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. According to Johnson, they didn't have a lot of members in the Midwest but nonetheless held a number of activities in the area.
"They claimed they were white protestants and that their job was to keep out the immigrants who were coming in, particularly from central Europe, particularly Catholics," he said. "Any migrant was not very popular with them."
On April 6, 1920, three 16-foot crosses were set on Barn Bluff and put on fire, but the biggest Klan activity in the region were the interstate meetings, which would start in Wisconsin and march across the bridge down into Main Street and up to the Old Fairgrounds (near Jefferson School today). They would hold cross burning's and initiations at Sorin's Bluff where they would sign up members.
"It's a grim thought that Red Wing went through something like this," Johnson said.
Red Wing Human Rights Commission member Beth Morris-Breeden remembers seeing a burning as a child.
"There have been some bad memories for me here. too," she said. "One of them was a couple days after we moved in. Somebody burned a cross right by our fence, and I woke up to a flame in my window."
On a brighter side, her family paved the way for a lot of firsts in Minnesota's history. Her brother Craig Morris made history as the first African American mayor in Minnesota when he served the city of Lakeland in 1986. He also was the first African American to be named Minnesota's Youth Governor in 1973 when he was a student.
Johnson said although people have come a long way, there's work to be done.
"It's been said that we're in a post-racial era in America mainly because of having a black president and civil rights laws passed," he said. "I do not for a moment believe that. I still think we're far, far down the road, but we've made a lot of progress in people."