Retired judge preserves stories of slaves who came to Minnesota for freedom

Many Minnesotans may know the story of Dred Scott and his legal fight for freedom and his time at Fort Snelling. But many may not know that hundreds of other African Americans came to Minnesota around the time of the Civil War and to Fort Snelling in particular.

Part of that history is the story of slaves leaving Missouri heading for freedom, being towed by two steamboats, and eventually docking at Fort Snelling.

You can find more information on that journey by clicking here.

Retired Hennepin County Judge LaJune Lange wants to document these early African American stories, find their descendants, and make sure they aren’t forgotten in Minnesota history.

"They came to make permanent lives, they brought their wives and children because they were not going to be laborers detached from their families in 1863," Lange says about this early history.

Her most valuable clue was the 1869 Convention of Colored Citizens of Minnesota. It was the first integrated convention of white and Black men after the state voted in favor of Black suffrage. And it has a list of attendees.

"I was able to find a record of the Colored People’s Convention held in St. Paul," she says. "And that was the list we gave the genealogist.   We’ve been able to find a significant number, at least a dozen families, that connect back to that period."

She brought in Robin Macgregor who is a genealogist and they got to work. Macgregor started with the names on the document and started tracing the family lines.   

"I created my own index, Robert Banks was in St. Paul and he was president of the convention," says Macgregor. "I also went to old phone directories and there would be addresses listed and even occupations. To follow the line, you’ve got to follow the children," she added.

And Judge Lange figures that if the people on this list were here in 1869, they were likely among those who came by boat six years earlier or who served in one of the Army’s all-Black units at Fort Snelling.

"I come from a family of enslavement, on my mother’s side they escaped with the fair-skinned member of the family with them pretending to be the owner and the darker member pretending to be the slave," says Lange. And she’s started the International Leadership Institute, a nonprofit, to focus on this research.

As part of her work, she brought out the story of the first Black fire captain for the Minneapolis Fire Department. Captain John Cheatham became a Minneapolis firefighter in 1888 and a captain by 1899. He headed up an all-Black fire station at 45th and Hiawatha. Cheatham was born in Missouri, likely coming to Minnesota as a child on one of those boats on the Mississippi.

Macgregor was able to find brothers Ludy and Corey Webster as local descendants and while they had heard a little bit of this story, this research really connected them to their great-great-great uncle and the city where they still live.

Judge Lange’s work helped to save the old fire station and Minneapolis designated it as a historic landmark in 2022. In addition, the city decided to name a road after Captain Cheatham. 

"We are finding the more that word gets out, the more people are willing to come forward and talk about their place in history," says Lange.

Minnesota voted to give Black men the right to vote a full two years before it was in the U.S. Constitution. And that convention was a celebration at Ingersoll Hall.

"It’s good to show that we weren’t missing as a people of African descent in terms of building this state," says Lange.