As George Floyd’s family, friends, and community mourn the life that was taken from him a week ago, we are watching a wave of protests sweep the country. We share the pain in which these protests are rooted, and with these protesters we mourn.
As a county historical society, we are also aware of how historic this moment is. Like our peers around the state, we know that our history is marked by other incidents of racial violence. We know the names of Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, and countless others — and as our friends at the Minnesota Historical Society have pointed out, we should also remember the names of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, who were lynched in Duluth almost a century ago.
Here in Clay County, where fewer black lives have been lived, we might remember Gloria West, Mabel Phillips, and Curt Dixon as they navigated life in Moorhead as Moorhead State College’s earliest black students. Or we might remember the challenges of Project E-Quality, a pilot scholarship program initiated by President John Neumaier at Moorhead State College four days after James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Project E-Quality students faced overt threats of violence during their time here, including isolated incidents of gunfire, and project fundraisers, President Roland Dille and Professors James and Yvonne Condell, endured vandalism for their support of the program. Sugared gas tanks and buckets of black paint. When the project was announced in the spring of 1968, local media decried the importation of race problems.
As local historians, we know those problems weren’t imported to our community in the 1960s. Felix and Kate Battles carried the pain of slavery when they settled here in Moorhead. Frank and Fannie Gordon carried that same pain when they settled across the river in Fargo. When Frank ran for alderman there in 1900, he was threatened with assassination and area newspapers called it a “cruel, practical joke.” So many others have carried that pain, and the legacy of that pain, in the years since.
As we focus on how we can build a more just and inclusive community, we leave you with these words from Kent Whitworth, director of the Minnesota Historical Society:
“Understanding history matters more than ever in times like these. It is a lens through which we view the experiences of others and empathize with their struggles and triumphs. It is a way that we build a deeper understanding of the events that brought us to the crossroads we find ourselves in today. It challenges us to demand better from our community, from our civic and cultural institutions and perhaps, most importantly, from ourselves.”
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Photo: Members of Moorhead State College's United Black Students Organization meet with President Roland Dille and Professor James Condell, 1969 (MSUM Archives).