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St. Cloud professor unearths history of slavery in Minnesota

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Sylvanus Lowry
Sylvanus Lowry in 1863, first mayor of St. Cloud. He was originally from Kentucky and owned slaves. The St. Cloud Hospital was built on land he owned.
Photo courtesy of the Stearns History Museum

A St. Cloud State University professor has found evidence of slavery in several Minnesota counties before the Civil War, a groundbreaking discovery that sheds light on the Midwest's pre-Civil War history.

Christopher Lehman, an ethnic studies professor who is researching slavery in states along the upper Mississippi River, has documented slavery in Stearns, Benton, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington counties. 

His research, to be published in a book in 2012, also found that prominent St. Cloud families of the mid-19th Century were slave owners.

Among them was Slyvanus Lowry, St. Cloud's first mayor, who once owned the land where St. Cloud Hospital stands.

Lowry, who came to Minnesota from Kentucky, had a plantation-style mansion there. Ownership of the land changed hands several times after his death in 1865.

"He was a powerful figure," Lehman said. "By the time he was mayor of St. Cloud, he was the most powerful Democrat in central Minnesota and St. Cloud had a reputation of being somewhat pro-slavery just because Lowry was."

Lowry founded a pro-slavery newspaper, The Union, which later became the St. Cloud Times. He started the paper to rival one run by the abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm

Christopher Lehman
Christopher Lehman, an ethnic studies professor at St. Cloud State University.
Ambar Espinoza/MPR Photo

Lowry's paper caught the attention of former Massachusetts Congressman Edward Everett, who cited it in an 1861 speech about pro-slavery journalism in the country.

 For seven years, Lehman extensively reviewed census records and newspaper articles from the 19th and early 20th centuries. His research findings are consistent with what he's found in books about slave owners in St. Cloud. 

In the 1850s and 1860s, the city's slave population was small -- only in the single digits, Lehman said. Statewide, the number of slaves sometimes approached 20, as southerners vacationed with their slaves in St. Cloud and other river towns, including the Twin Cities and Stillwater.

Southerners were able to travel with their slaves to Minnesota because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision which declared that, as property, slaves were not citizens and could not sue to win their freedom --- even in non-slaveholding states.

The court also ruled that the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the territory, was unconstitutional.

"So that led to a big rush of people who would vacation here in the north and bring their slaves from the south, and just dare people to do anything about it," Lehman said. "So even though you had the Northwest Ordinance, you had the Missouri Compromise, none of these laws amounted to a hill of beans because they weren't being enforced."

The Twin Cities and Stillwater had flourishing hotel businesses because of the Dred Scott decision, Lehman said. But the hotel businesses tanked when the Civil War began, because Southerners decided to stay in the south to fight for the Confederacy.

Lehman has written several articles for the Stearns History Museum that piece together this history. Those articles include the story of 32-year-old Mary Butler, a slave from Tennessee. Lowry's sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, the Rev. Thomas Calhoun, brought Mary to Minnesota.

"They traveled up the Mississippi River and they were able to be inside the boat," Lehman said. "But according a report by Jane Grey Swisshelm, Mary Butler was not able to be inside, but outside the boat instead. And so she had to suffer the elements while traveling during the winter time up river."

According to Swisshelm's newspaper article, Mary Butler had a two-year-old son with her during the trip to St. Cloud. 

Mississippi River near St. Cloud
Many migrants from the South who either settled or vacationed in Minnesota primarily traveled up the Mississippi River. This is how Reverend Thomas Calhoun and his wife Elizabeth, sister of Many migrants from the South who either settled or vacationed in Minnesota primarily traveled up the Mississippi River. This is how Reverend Thomas Calhoun and his wife Elizabeth, sister of St. Cloud's first mayor, traveled to Minnesota with their slave Mary Butler.
Ambar Espinoza/MPR Photo

Her toddler was already sick with measles, and Butler didn't have a blanket to keep him warm. To keep her son warm, she turned up the bottom of her dress to cradle him, but the child died after exposure to the cold weather.

But Butler also was pregnant during the boat ride, Lehman said. She gave birth to a baby boy named John a few months after she arrived in St. Cloud.

"That was in 1857, so John is probably the first African American born in St. Cloud," Lehman said. "There's a sort of myth that African-Americans in St. Cloud are a recent phenomenon, that they've been here only since the 1950s or '60s."

Lehman's research also found that African-Americans had a presence in St. Cloud even before the city's founding in 1856. Mary Butler's arrival predated that of immigrants from Austria, Hungary, and Denmark to Stearns County.

He found one newspaper article that documents the Rev. David Lowry, Sylvanus Lowry's father, brought two black cattle drivers with him when he pushed cattle north in 1854. That was one year before John Tenvoorde led the first group of German Americans to settle in St. Cloud.

The Lowrys and Calhouns were not the only prominent slaveholding families in St. Cloud. Samuel Hays, a former congressman from Virginia, also owned slaves.

In the 1890s, free blacks in St. Cloud thrived as middle-class entrepreneurs, primarily barbers, and whites in the city supported black-owned businesses until about 1915.

Two events sparked trouble for blacks in St. Cloud, Lehman notes. When a railroad company brought African-Americans to St. Cloud to break a strike in 1916, that created a backlash against the black laborers. Also, a mob gathered and threatened to lynch an African-American man when his relationship with a white woman, whom he later married in the Twin Cities, became public in 1917.

By 1920, Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation were institutionalized in Minnesota.

Because slaves who came to St. Cloud left with their owners, few stayed. Lehman thinks that's one reason why the black population in St. Cloud wasn't sizeable until the 1950s and 60s.

There are a couple of other tangible remnants of St. Cloud's slave-holding history. Below two stained-glass windows at First Presbyterian Church in St. Cloud are plates with the names of the Rev. David Lowry, father of the first mayor, and Rev. Thomas Calhoun, the owner of Mary Butler. 

Both men performed Cumberland Presbyterian missionary work in St. Cloud. Some of the same people who worshiped with Lowry and Calhoun later started First Presbyterian Church with another minister, after Lowry left St. Cloud and Calhoun died. 

Lehman's research will be published in a book tentatively titled, "Slavery in the Upper Mississippi," scheduled for publication some time in 2012. The book also will include the history of slavery in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.