People will tell you it’s wrong to judge the past by the standards of the present.
Those people in blackface, grinning out at us from old yearbooks? That was a different time.
The old minstrel shows are long gone. We edited most of the N-words out of our nursery rhymes. Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a tiger by the toe.
Times have changed, people will tell you. As if a bunch of white kids from Chaska didn’t show up at a football game last September with their faces painted black. As if Minnesota’s old high school and college yearbooks aren’t full of pictures as awful as the one the governor of Virginia has been trying to explain away for the past week.
Blackface leaves a stain.
After the Class of ’52 collected their diplomas at Edina-Morningside High School one spring evening, they headed to the gymnasium, where a uniformed doorman in blackface was waiting to greet them.
The party theme was “southern garden party,” the yearbook reported, and the parents who decorated the gym went all-out: “The men who served the food were also in blackface and costume.”
During the 1916 Winter Carnival in St. Paul, a group of costumed revelers posed for the camera. They had woolly wigs on their heads and black greasepaint on their faces and grass skirts around their waists and they held spears in their hands.
Sorority girls in blackface giggled together on the pages of old University of Minnesota yearbooks. Minneapolis theaters packed in crowds with minstrel shows, where black characters were punch lines, reduced to degrading caricatures with names like Jim Crow.
We were so cruel. We had no idea how cruel, which is why this keeps happening.
“It’s really important to look at what people once thought was socially acceptable,” said Sondra Reierson, curator of three-dimensional objects at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Reierson and her team are sifting through hundreds of racist artifacts in the state archives — not to weed them out, but to make sure they’re properly identified. The slave shackle unearthed at Fort Snelling, the racist buttons worn casually by generations of Minnesota high schoolers, valentines and salt and pepper shakers shaped like ugly racial stereotypes.
The cataloger Reierson assigned to the task can stomach it for only a few hours each week.
But the work has value.
You can’t understand the 1920 Duluth lynchings until you understand the society that allowed the killers and bystanders to pose for souvenir photos with the murdered bodies of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie.
“The way we dehumanize a group of people results in murder,” Reierson said.
You can love America, you can love Minnesota, and you can love your grandma while still acknowledging a few hard truths.
Minnesotans fought and died in the Civil War to end slavery. In the middle of the same war, an angry crowd in St. Paul scared away a steamship that was trying to help 75 enslaved men, women and children escape to safety.
Everyone loves a parade. Unless it’s 1923 and a Ku Klux Klan float is rolling along the homecoming parade route at the University of Minnesota. That was the same year the Gophers football team stomped a black linebacker named Jack Trice to death.
And your grandma? Your grandma grew up chanting the bad version of eenie meeney miney mo on the playground.
Before we can move forward, we need to look back and figure out how we got so lost.
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