On the Treasures of Deep Research

By Drew M. Ross

One of the pleasures of deep research is the unexpected find that ties together threads that you have been following. Sometimes, that gem comes too late to be included in the final draft of your work.

In the case of my article, “White Supremacy on Parade”,  I was scrolling through early 20th-century issues of The Appeal and The Twin City Star, the prominent African American newspapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota at that time. I came across a page in the newspaper that not only captured the significance of the moment, it gave me greater insight into it.

First, some background on the story. Years before, in my research on another topic, I had found in the main newspapers of Minneapolis pictures of people dressed in Ku Klux Klan costumes. Their faces were exposed, they were smiling, and they were standing on a Minneapolis street. The captions described how these ‘night riders’ were going to ‘invade’ their neighbor, St. Paul. What was going on?

I could find no previous research or writing on the parade. The event had dropped out of the local memory entirely. As I dug into the research, I realized the inspiration for this parade was the infamous movie, The Birth of a Nation. The movie was based on a story that glorified the Klan and impugned the African Americans of Reconstruction Era America. While the movie’s storyline actually inverted history, the story was told in a technological and dramatic way that captured and excited audiences. A silent film, it featured live music and dramatic filming techniques. To this day, movies incorporate the techniques innovated in that film. And sadly, elements of our contemporary issues of racism in the United States can be traced to this popular film.

My research led me to the local story about how the African American community of the Twin Cities fought to stop the film from being shown. That’s when I found the page of the November 27, 1917, issue of the Twin Cities Star that tied together the story of how the local African American community had prepared themselves for the fight against the movie. But I found it too late in the writing stage to include it and the situation’s nuances in the article, so I thought I would share it with you here.

Page of the November 27, 1917, issue of the Twin Cities Star

Because I knew the stories of the individuals mentioned on the page, I could now see into the pictures, as it were. I understood something more about the relationships than what was printed. The page included four notable items, two of them pictures. In sum, it identified the local community’s response to the racist challenges of the movie. The editor tipped his hat to the past, held up the person who had led them to this moment, and pointed to the future in one of their new leaders. Lastly, it tells us how they viewed different approaches to these issues that seem in hindsight to be contradictory but may not have been so in their present moment.

First, in a short faux news item, the editor mocked the man who had single-handedly undermined the then young NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) work and handed them their loss. Under the bold font Town Topics read the false notice: “In theatricals–’The Birth of a Nation.’ In politics–THE DEATH of Mayor Wallace G. Nye, who wanted to go to Congress from the new tenth district.” The mayor had been the protesters’ ally. Early on in the fight against the movie, he had banned it from playing in Minneapolis (films were not yet protected under freedom of speech). As the popular pressure built in favor of the movie, and despite him having the Minnesota Supreme Court confirm his authority to ban the film, the mayor relented. The Black community was bitter with his betrayal. They retracted their invitation to him to speak at the coming memorial for Booker T. Washington.

In the same column was an announcement of the memorial for Washington. His death came in the midst of the fight against the movie in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The local African American community had a close relationship with Washington, having hosted him here several times in the preceding years. Historian William Green, in his book Nellie Francis: Fighting For Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2020, p. 57) called St. Paul a “Bookerite town” because of the political makeup of the white and Black populations. The “power elite” were “benevolent and accessible,” just as the mayor had appeared initially. Washington was the national leader of African Americans for the past 25 years. He argued for the benefits of economic security for Blacks as primary to the social issues. This strategy was generalized in the term “accommodation.” His passing came at the same time the local activists became much more active and coordinated in their fight for equal treatment, especially against the movie.

Adjacent to the announcement for Washington’s memorial is a large picture of the late Fredrick L. McGhee, the state’s first African American attorney. The image sits prominently in the upper center of the page, and he appears to look down at the piece that spells out their derision for Mayor Nye. “The spirit of Fred McGhee,” Editor Smith wrote in tribute, was “shown to good advantage” in the fight against the film. In particular, “the memory of his fearlessness, and the results of his agitation encouraged many to follow his lead.” McGhee was born into slavery in Mississippi and came to St. Paul via Chicago in 1889. He was a founder with W.E.B. DuBois of the Niagara Movement, the predecessor of the NAACP. He was a leader in initiating the St. Paul NAACP chapter before his untimely death in 1912. Though the Twin Cities had a substantial network of activists, McGhee was a principal figure in leading them out of the past.

On the page above McGhee’s portrait is a larger image, a picture of William T. Francis, a St. Paul attorney. While Washington represented the past and McGhee played a singular role in getting them to the present, Francis embodied this transition to the future hope. Francis had cultivated a strong alliance with a prominent member on the St. Paul City Council. That would lead to him writing St. Paul’s ordinance banning films which incited racial hatred. While Francis was a staunch “Bookerite,” he served as an officer of the St. Paul NAACP. He was steeped in both of these strategies that we view historically as distinct and contrary to each other. We can see in Francis a transformation that was also occurring on the local and national levels.

William T. Francis

Washington had predicted that fighting the film would heighten its profile, attract attention to it, and spread its influence. He likely died knowing that his prediction was accurate. Protesting the film and trying to stop it had elevated the film’s exposure in the public eye. However, though they lost, those who fought felt vindicated, both locally and nationally. They had organized, they had been heard, they had tightened their alliances with politicians and other organizations. They learned from the fight and would apply it to their next fight. This was a national strategy developed and disseminated to the local chapters and it was very successful in those measures. It was in this light that they remembered McGhee, the local leader who they lost too early.

With McGhee, the local activists were embracing the way presented by DuBois, who had separated from Booker T. Washington on the primary strategy for improving the lives of African Americans. McGhee was a part of the leadership team of Minnesota’s chapter of the Afro-American League in the 1890s. They had sent a representative to attend the Afro-American League’s second national convention in Knoxville, Tennessee. The representative, Samuel Hardy, purchased a first-class ticket on the train. At the Tennessee border, he was removed from the first-class car according to the new Jim Crow laws that segregated the train cars in that state. The Minnesota delegation was not surprised as they knew about the new Jim Crow law. Inspired by their connection with the influential activist Thomas Fortune in New York, they aimed to use the incident as a legal test case; they would challenge the Jim Crow law that segregated the trains in court, aiming to get the law overturned. Their strategy of leveraging an incident on the segregated train cars appears similar to the well-known test case that did rise to the Supreme Court: Plessy vs. Ferguson from Louisiana, which of course failed to overturn the law (for more information on this strategy, see Comité des Citoyens).

That was one reason they liked Minnesota: they could fight for their race uninhibited by those oppressing Jim Crow laws. While their effort failed, in this case because the fight was so far away, they were prepared. They viewed their unique position in Minnesota as a way to leverage their impact in other states. As John Quincy Adams, the long-time editor of The Appeal, noted, it was a “great benefit to reside in a state which does not generally discriminate against its citizens. There is room in the great state of Minnesota for others who wish to escape the degradation of the South” (The Appeal, June 13, 1914, p. 2). He was speaking generally, in terms of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, as Minnesota was never immune from the incivilities of racism, such as denying service at a business (see Chad Montrie, Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2022). For this latter issue, they had deliberately recruited a professional class of African Americans to serve the community.

In fact, both Adams and McGhee were drawn to Minnesota in part by that recruitment effort of the generation before them. The Minnesota African American community was small compared to other states. In 1920, Ohio had 120,000 African Americans of a population of 5.3 million or 2.3%. Minnesota had a fraction of that. In 1920, Minnesota African Americans were 8,809 of 2.4 million residents or 0.37% (see Earl Spangler, The Negro in Minnesota, T.S. Denison & Co. Minneapolis, MN, 1961, p. 98).  Even Iowa had over twice as many African Americans as Minnesota, and that was the closest state in terms of population. Illinois had over 20 times as many. Industrial growth had been a magnet in the northern migration of African Americans. Minnesota was less urbanized, lacked industrial job opportunities, and remained west of the flow of the rising migration to the north.

Editor Smith would lament this disadvantage of a smaller population in his editorials. While in Ohio, African American activists were able to get the movie banned, Smith felt in Minnesota their political power was diminished because of their relative size of their population. Yet, despite moments of despair that he voiced, he knew that the Twin Cities African American community was growing and active. The community had been promoting Minnesota as a place to live as Adams had said. They wanted to grow for several reasons along with having a stronger political voice. They built their own community, courting such people as editor Adams from Kentucky and attorney Fredrick McGhee from Illinois, to serve the community. As the article shows, they felt that despite their losses in stopping the film, they had gained more in community relations and awareness to build on in their future fights for equal treatment.

Finally, while the two strategies represented by the work of Washington and DuBois are distinct and seem opposed, this one page captures the truth that life is more complicated than that. Smith was fully aware of the differences in these approaches. He was in the thick of the fight to stop the movie, which Washington had felt was not worth the fight. These two strategies were simultaneously available and in development, and certainly events such as DuBois publicly splitting with Washington marked pivotal moments. However, this transition demonstrates that people can and do live with contradictory ideas simultaneously. Indeed, with close inspection of our beliefs, we are bound to find similar instances.

About the Author

Drew M. Ross is a writer, editor, and independent scholar based in St. Paul, Minnesota. 



Page of the November 27, 1917, issue of the Twin Cities Star: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/data/batches/mnhi_limbo_ver01/data/sn90060427/00383348225/1915102301/1094.pdf.

Birth of a Nation – theatrical poster: Wikimedia Commons.

William T. Francis: Wikimedia Commons.

Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, December 13). On the Treasures of Deep Research. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg6b

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