See more of the story

A New Year’s resolution made on Facebook by St. Paul’s police chief could lead to the elimination of language in the Minnesota Constitution that says slavery is acceptable when it’s used as a criminal punishment.

The phrase, among the very first sentences in the 14-article Constitution that ushered Minnesota into statehood in 1858, drew the attention of St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell a few months ago when he read about other states confronting slavery passages in their constitutions.

“For some time now, I’ve been troubled by a clause in the Minnesota State Constitution,” Axtell wrote Tuesday morning on Facebook, sharing with his followers that his 2020 resolution was to “ignite a movement” to have it removed.

The campaign got off to a fast start. Before the day was out, legislators were publicly talking about holding hearings to launch a constitutional amendment.

Axtell said he read the Minnesota Constitution closely several months ago after learning that Colorado and Nebraska had removed constitutional references to slavery. He said he didn’t expect to find similar language here and was astonished when he did.

He quoted Article 1, Section 2, in his Facebook post: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.”

He wrote on Facebook that it was “time — beyond time — to move forward together and strike out slavery from our shared constitution.”

State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said he planned to raise the issue this session in the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

“Just the idea of having it be out there saying that slavery is OK when it’s used as a punishment, I think that’s problematic and we need to take it out,” Lesch said Tuesday.

Minnesota’s history on slavery and indentured servitude isn’t as clear cut as it might first seem, Lesch said. While the state outlawed slavery at its establishment before the Civil War, Minnesota saw the forced servitude of German prisoners of war during World War II, when they worked in farm fields in western Minnesota.

A constitutional amendment wouldn’t take the same path through the Legislature as a bill, he said. It needs majority approval from both houses of the Legislature (but not the governor’s signature) and then would go to the ballot in November. If a majority of voters approved the amendment, the language would be stripped from the Constitution.

Lesch said he was aware of the slavery reference before Axtell raised it, but had just “glossed over it” in past readings of the Constitution. He said he’d like to see the hearing take place soon after the Legislature convenes in early February. Lesch said he would ask Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, to hold a hearing in the Senate as well.

Limmer could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Axtell, speaking a few hours after he made the New Year’s resolution, said he was sure this year’s promise would stick.

“I’m confident we can get this done,” he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329