Moorhead museum tells long-overlooked stories of Black history

A woman and a man with a framed portrait
Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County employees Markus Krueger and Gabby Clavo with a portrait the museum commissioned for an exhibit about local Black history.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Updated: 7:01 a.m.

Markus Krueger wants to bust a myth about the history of Fargo-Moorhead.

"There arose this myth about us that isn't true, that everybody here was white for so long, up until year X. And that wasn't true," said Krueger, programming director for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. "We had a thriving African American community for the first 50 years."

"This was a part of local history that we hadn't delved into before. And it's about time,” he added.

A new exhibit curated by the society focuses on the history of this long-overlooked group of early residents.

Black communities and other BIPOC communities have a history in the area that hasn’t been written down or documented well, said Gabby Clavo, communications manager for the Clay County Museum in Moorhead. “Collecting these stories is really important, so we can tell this story for future generations.”

a white tent near the remains of burned buildings
Frank Gordon quickly reopened his barbershop in a tent after a fire destroyed much of downtown Fargo in 1893.
Courtesy North Dakota State University archives

Some of the first non-Indigenous people to settle in Fargo-Moorhead were Black. Many were barbers attracted to new railroad boom towns in the late 1800s.

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"That profession happened to be what drew a lot of the first Black families to Fargo-Moorhead in that original generation,” said Krueger.

"White men thought that it was the height of luxury to be able to get a shave and a haircut and get a bath drawn by an African American barber, by a tonsorial artist, they called them," said Krueger.

Learning the stories of those early residents was a challenge.

“For some people, we know almost nothing except for names,” said Krueger. “And then you find out about Julius Taylor, and Julius Taylor was a barber in Fargo in the 1880s. And then he left in 1889 to found the Broad Ax, which was Chicago's first African American newspaper, so we know a lot about him.”

They learned some details by painstakingly tracing family histories.

“We know that Frank Gordon was a barber who ran for (Fargo) city alderman in 1900. He didn't win, and he and his family eventually moved out to the West Coast. His grandson is actually world famous jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon.”

Much of was was learned about the early Black families came from The Appeal, an African American newspaper in St. Paul that tracked social happenings across the region including Fargo-Moorhead.

"They describe in detail the parties that are held by the families they call “the elite”, and these tend to be the barber families," said Krueger.

A notable resident discovered in the newspaper pages was Lottie Adams, the daughter of an 1880s barber family. She was a colorful figure and because only one photo of her could be found, the museum commissioned a Moorhead artist, born in Nigeria, to paint her portrait.

"She's always organizing a party or there's a party being organized for her because she's visiting St. Paul or Grand Forks or Duluth,” said Krueger “She is one of the queens of the social scene in Fargo in the 1890s."

a historic family portrait
The Horton Adams family in a photograph from the 1890s. Adams was one of several Black barbers who opened businesses in Fargo Moorhead in the late 1800s.
Courtesy Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County

The researchers found even getting an accurate count of early Black residents was difficult. The Black population of Fargo-Moorhead might have reached 200 by 1900, but Black families were often listed as white in census records. Clavo said decisions about identity were complicated, and obscuring their race might have been a necessary choice.

"Because it could endanger their businesses, their safety,” she said. “And so we did see that researching some of the people in this exhibit. So safety was a big part in choosing what to identify as, and identifying as white was probably the safest option."

By the 1930s most of those early families had left, lured away by economic opportunity and larger Black communities in the Twin Cities or Chicago, or perhaps driven away by the rise of a local Ku Klux Klan movement in the early 1900s, also documented in the exhibit.

Krueger said Lottie Adams moved to the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, as did many other Black residents of Fargo-Moorhead.

By 1965, when Yvonne Condell moved to Moorhead as a college professor with her husband, a psychologist and jazz musician, she recalls only one other Black resident.

"I was fascinated by the fact that one could come to a town that was so unlike places we'd been before, Florida, Kentucky and Georgia,” she said in a recent interview. “So it was quite an experience to come to a town where you were persons two and three."

The Condells taught at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, and they helped recruit students of color to the school.

Yvonne Condell is an advisor to the Historical and Cultural Society on this exhibit, and she was struck by the history of Black barbers in the 1800s.

a woman sits in her home in Moorhead
Minnesota State University Moorhead Professor Emeritus Yvonne Condell served as an advisor to the Stories of Local Black History exhibit. Condell and her husband James, a psychologist and jazz musician, moved to Moorhead in 1965. Their story is part of the community's history.
Courtesy Rick Henderson

"For example, African American barbers could cut white men's hair. Okay, no problem. When the reverse came, when our students came, we had to find a way to get their hair cut because all the barbers at that time were white barbers who refused to cut black folks hair,” recalled Condell.

The Black community remained small until the 1990s when immigrants from African countries began to resettle in Fargo-Moorhead.

Krueger said the population has grown steadily in the past 20 years, and while the communities are still mostly white, according to the 2020 census, about 8 percent of residents in Cass County, (Fargo) and nearly 6 percent in Clay County (Moorhead) identify as African American/Black.

The exhibit also discusses recent history, including the 2018 election of Johnathan Judd as Moorhead's first Black mayor. Judd is now a Minnesota district court judge, but he was mayor when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and in the aftermath, he challenged local residents to have difficult conversations about race.

"We need to embrace the fact that we don't like having tough conversations that might cause us to think internally about how we view things, because we're not about expressing our vulnerability," he said in an MPR News interview in July of 2020.

"During the protests, he said that our community has to start having conversations about these questions,” said Krueger, “I'm hoping that this exhibit can maybe be part of that conversation.”

“Contributing to those uncomfortable conversations,” added Clavo, who expects the exhibit to make some residents uncomfortable. “But you know, to learn you have to get uncomfortable."

Clavo wants this exhibit to spark conversations across the community, perhaps generating new stories about race and history the museum can collect, creating a more complete local history story for future generations.

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.