Cold! Oh how cold! The bleak, north wind nearly pierced the vitals on my long walk to Sunday School. No fire had been made and this prefaced the duties to follow; but was very happy in telling children and adults the story of the cross, and pressing their need of a risen Savior.
Harriet Bishop, January 9, 1849
In 1841 Father Lucien Galtier secured a site for a chapel, a garden, and a graveyard on the river bluff near the landing that would become the territorial and later the state capital. Here he built a humble log church “so poor,” he said, “that it would well remind one of the stable in Bethlehem.” On November 1 he blessed “the new basilica, and dedicated it to St. Paul, the apostle of nations,” the namesake so chosen to reflect the variety of races and cultures that could be seen in the area’s earliest population, a population that included white Americans, Europeans, French Canadians, Dakota, Cree, Ojibwe, and, to a much smaller degree, African Americans, a place where a black man’s character could often preempt the stigma of color, before the time when the prejudices of Jacksonian America were enacted into the local social contract.
By 1848 the signs of change were imminent: power was inexorably moving into the hands of men who were white, American, and Protestant, and codified by laws they promulgated in 1849 that strengthened their position in matters concerning governance and property. At St. Paul’s Central House, where the territorial legislature met, Gideon Pond, Morton Wilkinson, and a handful of legislators had argued in vain for a law that would extend citizenship to all men over twenty-one years of age, instead of white men only. From then on, it would primarily be St. Paul that would witness a history with its black residents that would be far from stellar.
As a city that offered opportunity no other place in the state provided, St. Paul attracted the largest concentration of black residents in the state. And yet, the very concept of a growing black presence had always been the source of consternation among city policy makers and their constituents. Situated at the head of the navigable waters of the Mississippi throughout the 1850s and much of the 1860s, St. Paul was the last stop for blacks running away from slavery, the abject racism of the lower Midwest, or the drudgery of farm labor that was in some ways a slight improvement over what they had left in the South. But in the view of much of white St. Paul the attraction of the city was its own threat. In 1854 legislators representing the city proposed a law that would create a black code for Minnesota. The measure failed, but in the face of the defeat, a legislator from St. Paul reportedly threatened to propose a bill in the next session that would require blacks to live in Hennepin County. Though nothing came of that measure, the message to black arrivals was clear: go anywhere else but here.
By 1863 Minnesota suffered a major labor shortage due to the high numbers of young men who had gone off to war, a need, as the Daily Press reported, that not even “five thousand Negroes” could satisfy. Alarmed at the possibility of contraband flooding northward, several state legislators and a segment of the white community began characterizing the Mississippi as a “conduit for blacks and mulattoes fleeing southern states bordering the river.” Legislators feared that blacks would compete for jobs customarily held by poor whites, thus denying that class of citizens a livelihood. Furthermore, it was felt that whites unwilling to work or compete against black labor might resort to violence. They had seen it happen in other Northern cities. At worst, the detractors claimed that black migrants would become paupers and wards of the state.
The concern expressed by the legislators was not entirely unfounded, for in the opening years of the Civil War blacks and fugitive slaves came to Minnesota. Between 1860 and 1870 the black population nearly tripled in size, growing from 259 to 737. In January 1860 a bill was introduced into the state House of Representatives that would have prevented the further migration of blacks into the state and required registration of those already in residence. The 1860 bill would have discouraged the further migration of blacks. Though it failed, as late as February 1863, petitions were being circulated on the streets of St. Paul requesting that the legislature reconsider the issue.
An aspect of this message appeared in 1857 when the Board of Education proposed to “separate children of African descent if thirty requested formal education.” When fewer than that number stepped forward, the board, overseeing the education of more than six thousand enrolled schoolchildren, lowered the limit to fifteen, relegating black children to abysmal classroom conditions. Despite the order, because of the high cost of the Civil War and the Dakota War, by 1864 the city was unable to maintain even the most decrepit facilities and allowed black children to attend white schools. The Press reported, “Many white parents were taking away their children on that account.” In October 1864 the school board reaffirmed its commitment to segregate black children with whatever resources it saw fit to invest.
On August 10, 1865, a group of black veterans who had served in units of the U.S. Colored Infantry published in the Daily Press a petition criticizing the school board and its chair, Colonel Daniel Robertson, for the appalling conditions of “black” classrooms and the exclusion of “their black children from public schools”; the men threatened to withhold their payments of school taxes. In response, the board issued an official notice that a “School for Colored Children” would be open in a building on Ninth and Jackson Streets. Soon after classes began, however, the board discovered “problems of maintaining and operating” the school. Not until two years later did the superintendent of schools announce that “the colored school will not be opened until further notice.” Yet, despite Superintendent Mattocks’s report on May 6, 1867, that the average monthly enrollment of colored students was 25 with the average attendance being 18, no teacher had been hired. In contrast, total enrollment of all of the city’s children was 1,983; average attendance, 932. Fifty-two teachers were paid that month.
On November 30, 1867, the Daily Press reported, “The colored students of this city are excluded from the free schools which are located in convenient and comfortable buildings, well-supplied with maps, charts, blackboards, and usual equipment for such institutions.” Rather, the school reserved for black children remained “in an very dilapidated condition.” Some of the windows had been broken out, the plastering was falling off, “and the keen air of winter will find entrance through many a crack and cranny.” To keep out a part of the cold that would otherwise seep inside, the windows had been partly boarded up, so that while the room might be warmer, there would be very little light.
As board secretary and chair of two standing committees—accounts and census—D. D. Merrill, very much mindful of how unpopular it would be to criticize the quality of resources set aside for black students, said nothing during the one term he served on the board, or of how he perceived such inequity. Several of his fellow board members were both prominent Democrats and business associates, and the educational welfare of black children was the least of their concerns. The streak of pragmatism led Merrill to keep his misgivings to himself. The policy of school segregation remained until March 1869, when the state legislature, three months after the celebration of black suffrage, passed a bill that denied state funds to schools that segregated on basis of race. The St. Paul school system, the only district in the state that officially segregated black and white children, was the only district affected. It was now essentially mandated that the capital city’s black and white children were to learn in the same classrooms. The board recorded wryly, “The colored school which has been in operation for the past three years has been abandoned by virtue of an act of the last Legislature of the state, making it a penal offense to maintain such a school.”
Before the week had passed, voices complained that there was no room in white classrooms and black pupils were being turned away. “Some feeling has been already manifested upon this subject, and it is very far from certain that the law will prove beneficial to the colored pupils, in whose interest it was framed and passed.” By April, thirteen students were admitted into white schools “after due examination” just instituted that month. According to the Pioneer, they displaced white students who would otherwise be enrolled in school. “Three of four pupils have been taken out of the public schools on account of the admission of colored students.” By May 15, 1869, the total number of students enrolled was 1,302. The average number of students who attended district schools that month was 1,148. In that the legislature allocated school funds according to the number of children living in the city, the St. Paul School District received enough to serve nearly twice the number currently enrolled. The reason for the surplus was the large number of children who attended Catholic schools.
November 1865 was notably reflective of another form of antiblack sentiment in St. Paul, standing in high contrast to the tumultuous events earlier that year. After the deaths of 620,000 men the Civil War had finally ended at Appomattox. One week later, President Lincoln was assassinated. As Radical Republicans in Congress enacted a series of civil rights laws, they jousted with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a Democrat and former slaveholder whose prickly temperament prompted fighting between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. In Minnesota the party of Lincoln was just as determined to extend its martyred president’s legacy by granting the vote to black men residing in the state. That year, however, the question failed, 12,138 to 14,651. In St. Paul, the “nay” vote prevailed by more than a three-to-one count. In response, in 1867 the Republican-controlled legislature adopted a series of resolutions expressing the belief that “Southern traitors, vanquished in arms, were still hostile.” No truer strike for equality could be taken than to try again; but again, the referendum failed statewide by over one thousand votes, with St. Paulites voting against the measure by over a two-to-one margin. By 1868 voters were being prepared to address the issue for a third time. The city with the largest black population would likely continue to be the most resistant to black suffrage.
On January 10, 1868, Governor Marshall fired an opening salvo in the new campaign for black suffrage in his annual message to the state House and Senate. Appealing heavily in that speech to the principle of Republican values, he argued that Minnesota was ready to support black suffrage. Throughout the state the remarks were largely well received. Throughout the year, Republican voters statewide were strongly lobbied by party leaders, spearheaded by Morton Wilkinson, to support the amendment. By September they were prepared to vote yes.
The problem was, despite the city’s being the site of Republican-dominated state government, the residence of the Republican governor, the seat of a Republican mayor, and the home of the state’s most influential Republican newspaper, the majority of the men of St. Paul were decidedly Democratic. The Daily Pioneer, the voice of Democratic grievances, reported, “The amendment was [supported] by nearly all the businessman of the city.” Under the title “Minnesota for a White Man Government,” the paper editorialized a sentiment that was as pertinent in 1867, when it was written, as it was in 1868: “Whether Flandrau or Marshall is elected, the white people of Minnesota can lay this emotion to their souls, that the negroes who live in this state are not their political equals.” In another section under the heading “Attempted Outrage,” the Pioneer compounded a story on “negro suffrage” with another—“A Nigger attempts to violate a white woman on the steamer Milwaukee,” fusing three of the most inflammatory topics of the nineteenth century: race, sex, and politics. A year later, weeks before the 1868 vote, the editor urged his readers, “This is the greatest importance that everyone opposed to the negro voting should vote against the proposed amendment.” Elsewhere the Pioneer editor was more expansive:
For the third time, we are called on to decide whether the elective franchise shall be extended to negroes or whether the purity of the ballot box shall be maintained and WHITE MEN alone be permitted to exercise this sacred trust. Twice has this proposition been voted down by large majorities. This time, in order to make the odious thing sure, the law says it shall be voted upon the regular ticket. The Republicans sugar-coat the pill so that voters may not know its character, by describing it simply as “amendment to section seven of article one,” while it is explained on the Democratic ballots. The Democrats to a man oppose the proposition and thousands of Republicans will vote against it if they understand the method if submission. Remember to scratch out the “Yes” and write “No.”
Simply put: the thorny politics of the day made quite uncertain the prospect of raising money for a black church that was intended to grow into a dominant platform for black Minnesota. Many whites would support what Hickman was trying to do. But many more, some being Baptists, could be influenced against the venture if there was a sense the church could attract an uncomfortably large number of irreligious, unskilled, and unassimilable Southern black arrivals to the city, or any other hint of controversy. Hickman’s group needed someone to help guide them through these treacherous waters, someone who understood the white people who would respond to their call, who could convince potential donors that building Pilgrim Baptist Church would “civilize” the unruly black masses in their midst, while remaining politically nonpartisan, or at least not a platform for the Republican agenda. It was an act of faith to reach out to a man whose history they could not have known, who understood the white people who would respond to their call, who had been of that community, having served on the Board of Education in 1857, someone whom Merrill most clearly favored: the Reverend A. M. Torbet. The announcement of his “superintending” role appeared in both the Republican and Democratic press. Yet, even as the Democratic Pioneer printed notices of Pilgrim’s (“colored”) services amid the listing of white churches every Sunday, it also periodically reminded its readers of disturbances caused by black residents. In doing so, the paper demonstrated that a truce had been struck, but it was a very fragile truce.
* * * * *
What has been the positive service which this church has rendered in the community apart from its contribution of Christian life through its individual members? It has given to the community that subtle something called the Christian sentiment which always challenges any community. . . . The membership of this church has always had a high reputation in the city’s life. To call the roll of earlier days is to name the men and women who were creative forces for the building up of a real commonwealth. Members of the First Baptist Church have been found in all the relations of the city’s life and that contribution has not been lessened in the least in the years just behind us.
John R. Brown
Robert Hickman had no other choice but to rely on the advice of one who seemed to understand it all: D. D. Merrill, senior trustee and devout Baptist (he would become a deacon in 1870), successful businessman, a leader of the Chamber of Commerce, former inspector of the St. Paul Board of Education: he was the man in the middle, sometimes the man in the shadows, who whispered the right words to the right people, who in turn had the influence to change the course of events. He knew when to push and when not to push, and he understood the tactical complexities of advancing the interests of Hickman and his followers within the racial and political maelstrom of a city that had never supported the interests of African Americans. He did so within the sectarian tenets of the Baptist faith; he appreciated the delicate and sometimes duplicitous balance of wielding influence without provocation, showing virtue through compromise, embodying conscience without expression or voice. And presumably he knew that an uncomfortable number of fellow Baptists, many who considered themselves to be genuine friends of the black man and sincere Lincoln Republicans, may view black suffrage as overreaching on the part of black aspirants and ill advised on the part of radicals.
The Pioneer, strident as ever against black suffrage, wrote often against the proposition, publishing articles about “outrages committed by Southern blacks and white renegades” against white women, all in an effort to provoke the view that granting the ballot to black men was the epitome of civic irresponsibility. Even the friends of the colored man had severe misgivings about the wisdom of black suffrage. “The Chicago Standard of October 2,” reported the Pioneer, “which is the organ of the Baptists of the Northwestern States and is of course, sufficiently radical in its politics, says, ‘We doubt seriously whether it has been for the interests of the colored race themselves to excite among them such expectations as they seem now to cherish, or to encourage them in putting forward so prominently, and at so early an hour, their chance to political equality.’ ”
This missive was directed not only to the party faithful—the Democratic voter, the white man on the street—but also to the Baptists of St. Paul, who might confuse a vote for black suffrage with an endorsement of the society of Pilgrims to become an institution of black political empowerment. In fact, as the Pioneer reminded readers, white majorities in other Northern states, as those within the North Star State had done twice before, drew a clear distinction between black freedom and equality. Although willing to fight for emancipation, good white Union men should continue to reject black suffrage, which explained why their legislature betrayed the public trust by now resorting to undemocratic organizing tactics and deception:
In Minnesota, the radical legislature which again proposed this vote, attempted to twist it up inextricably with the national and general political issue. They provide that the vote should be taken on the general ballot, that the rules of party discipline might be applied to the subject. The order was gone out to radical communities and candidates to print on their ballots with “Amendment to Section One, Article Seven of the Constitution—Yes.”
This is the delicate way in which the question is put. The ballots are not to read “For” or “Against” “Negro Suffrage.” But an elaborate euphemism was adopted—the pill was sugar-coated for the taste of delicate patients and they are now ordered to take it down.
The editor attacked the referendum process by pointing out that only the majority of those voting singularly on the question would determine the fate of the amendment “whereas the language of the Constitution provides in explicit language that adoption of such provisions ‘must be by a majority of all votes cast at the election when the proposition was determined.’ ” The whole matter was a “fraud,” stacked against the will of Minnesota’s right-thinking white men. The Pioneer continued:
The vote should have been taken separately, on a separate ballot placed in a separate box, and a majority of all the votes cast at the election should have been required for adoption. As a rebuke to the attempted fraud, a wall as against negro suffrage on its face—see that your ballot reads— “AMENDMENT TO SECTION ONE, ARTICLE SEVEN OF THE CONSTITUTION—NAY!”
To one taking the temperature of the moment in St. Paul, the continued support of white patrons of black opportunity was uncertain especially among the most prominent of supporters. Former U.S. senator Morton S. Wilkinson, who was now running for a congressional seat, was rumored to be plotting a challenge against another (albeit lukewarm) ally of black suffrage, Alexander Ramsey, while Republicans and Democrats alike savaged Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, who was campaigning to return to Washington. August had marked an especially unnerving site of two factions of Radical Republicans—one led by Governor Marshall, Ramsey’s chief lieutenant, against Donnelly men—who waged a pitched battle for control over a voting place in the First Ward, blocks from where Pilgrim Baptist was to be constructed:
Led by Governor Marshall in person, the anti-Donnelly group succeeded in driving out the Donnellyites, but theirs was a hollow victory. The floor of the room collapsed during the struggle, and the beaten Donnellyite forces organized their own poll on the sidewalk in front of the building, hooting and cursing at Governor Marshall as he solicited votes through the window.
Adding to the political complexity was the ethnic loyalty to Republican Donnelly that existed within the large Irish Catholic population of St. Paul that normally voted the Democratic line and typically saw blacks as rivals. In all, these factors gave “the city a long-standing reputation for turbulent politics.” In St. Paul, during this political season, anything could happen. Within this climate, it was sage advice to keep one’s head down.
On November 3, votes were cast across the state. Wilkinson was elected to the House and Donnelly’s bid failed. The Pioneer rejoiced in his defeat. “[Donnelly] was generally regarded as a bolter, and this fact, together with the bad reputation he acquired from his blackguard speech in Congress, seems to have lost him the sympathy of the radical party.” But it was the suffrage referendum, approved by 39,493 to 30,121 votes, that mattered most to black Minnesotans. In Ramsey County, however, the amendment failed, 1,461 to 1,982. In St. Paul, the question failed in every city ward except the Fifth. After lodging its grievances regarding the manner in which the referendum was held, the Pioneer extended what seemed to be a gracious admonition to Minnesota’s newest citizens:
But now that we have got [negro suffrage], we must make the best of it. We advise negroes to read Democratic newspapers, to hear Democratic speakers, to post themselves upon political topics, and to qualify themselves in their minds as they are qualified in law, for the duties of the voter. They should do as a white man should do in Hayti, or Liberia, if the negro governments of those countries should see fit to let the white man vote. They should not be guided by prejudices, nor be beguiled by demagogues, but should ascertain which party will make the best laws, impose the lowest taxes, wipe out the debt, and make the country what it ought to be: then they should vote for the party.
It seemed that things could settle down.
Hickman was now a full-fledged citizen of the state of Minnesota. As such he could vote, serve on juries, and run for office if he so chose; and as a citizen, standing equal to every white man in the state, he had a right to demand consideration by government leaders. When he came to St. Paul, five and a half years earlier, freedom was all that he desired: freedom to earn a living, freedom to openly worship within a congregation of his kinsmen, freedom to demand respect from any man he met on the street. But it did not necessarily mean that he aspired to political equality. In practice, however, the mere attainment of the vote showed that he already enjoyed the stewardship of the state’s most influential political and business leaders. And considering the minuscule size of black men as a voting bloc, there would not be the pandering by politicians often seen directed to the Swedes, Irish, and Germans. And as the returns became evident, it was clear that support for the suffrage came from outside the city. The voting majority within St. Paul voted “nay,” and it was from within their midst that Hickman needed support to construct his church. Merrill and his counsel remained quite important.
In the warm reflection of wintry November the event meant something quite profound, however—saving the right to vote was considerable. It was a right that no less characterized the very purpose of the American Revolution, a right that Hickman now possessed by the generosity of white strangers. Indeed, “negro suffrage” was a heady recognition of inclusion into the commonwealth that had chosen by its own free will to buck convention, not having it forced on it by Congress or the courts, and in so doing, decided, without coercion, that establishing black citizenship was fundamental to the principle of being Minnesotan. Holding citizenship, in other words, meant holding political and civic worth. And though Negro suffrage by definition was political in nature, it transcended mere politics for a black man who saw his enslavement as a curtailment of God’s creation, and in this, it was less political and more spiritual fulfillment, being more fully in the service of God. It was indeed a reason for thanksgiving to be quite appropriately observed when each Sunday he worshipped; but it would begin inauspiciously.
On the wintry evening of Friday, November 13, a group of black men from St. Paul met in the room on Wabasha and Third near the river used for worship by Hickman and the Pilgrims. The night before, St. Paul had been hit by frigid cold and snowfall that drove “workmen from all outdoor work.” On Friday, however, the weather tempered enough for the snow to melt in the busy streets, leaving them and everything venturing over them mired in mud. A large procession that had been planned was canceled since “the muddy streets utterly prevented this.” Instead, the plan was changed to serenade some of the prominent Republicans who had been “especial advocates of impartial suffrage.” By celebrating the work of Republican leaders, the procession would be seen as a partisan affair. “Siebert’s band, which had been procured for the evening, mounted in Cook and Webb’s bandwagon drawn by four horses,” and was “followed by quite a procession of vehicles containing the colored men of the city.” It was about ten o’clock before the procession started. The first visit was made to Governor Marshall, who invited them into the home to partake of refreshments and was “handsomely entertained” by the new Negro voters who serenaded him.
The whole affair was like red meat to the editor of the Pioneer, who again took every opportunity to report any mishap and indignity to undercut the momentous nature of the event:
A portion of the members composing the colored celebration party, on Friday night, came to grief on the corner of Third and Meeker streets. The wagon in which they were seated, in trying to turn the corner, capsized the crew into a sea of mud, which they extricated themselves with some difficulty. The party was taken to the Dispatch [newspaper] office, where they were provided with a change of clothing, and the editor of that paper accompanied them to [Press editor] Mr. Driscoll’s house, where a splendid entertainment was provided for all hands—white and colored.
Though the two newspapers represented bitter political rivals—the Dispatch was the organ for Donnelly whereas the Press was the organ for Marshall and Ramsey—at the end of the day, they were all Republicans helping the “coloreds” within this most Democratic of cities.
In the next several weeks, there was a swirl of activities in preparation for the statewide convention: arrangements needed to be made; accommodations set; speakers secured; resources tapped. Yet the circumstances of the convention made bipartisanship impossible. The powerful friends within the Republican Party and the new leaders of the state’s newest citizenry made it so. A cautious man may have worried about the effect of such provocative events. On one hand, there was the demand for discretion on behalf of soliciting funds to build the church. On the other, a cadre of black men who would form the first leadership of a burgeoning social and political elite for Minnesota’s black community—barbers Maurice Jernigan, Thomas Stockton, Robert Banks, and Thomas Jackson—saw Hickman as one of the brethren, and it was they who seemed willing to slight the Democrats for their support of policies that kept them in an inferior status. In response to state senator Levi Nutting, who reminded the audience to beware of those who would tell them how to vote and the particular hypocrisy of a certain newspaper, the crowd began shouting “Pioneer! Pioneer! Pioneer!” During the morning of the convention, the black leaders met at the home of Maurice Jernigan, who was selected to be convention president. There they spent the morning organizing the Sons of Freedom, Minnesota’s first statewide black civil rights organization.
Hickman now stood at the heart of political engagement. But being a politician—or a founding member of a civil rights organization—did not seem to be the reason he was there. In fact, not since his speaking appearance in August at the controversial picnic in Hansen’s Gardens, soon before Reverend Torbet had agreed to “superintend” the “work” of Pilgrim Baptist, had Hickman stood up before the larger community to speak. He hosted the November 13 meeting since it occurred in his worship room at Wabasha and Third; but he did not speak during the procession and the visits with dignitaries that followed. And though he participated in planning the statewide convention scheduled for January 1, during the proceedings, after an evening of black and white speakers took the podium, Hickman was called only to lead those assembled in prayer. Though these events gave him exposure, it was not so much as a race leader—one who articulated the dreams and aspirations of his people, inspired them to collectively act in the interest of themselves as a nation within a nation, spoke with the intent of shaping political and economic agenda—as a chaplain of events, one who blessed this momentous point in history. It was an important though not as prominent role.
On stage, Hickman’s stature did not equal that of Maurice Jernigan, Thomas Jackson, and Robert Banks, all three of whom were prominently linked with the 1865 and 1866 campaigns and who were successful businessmen within the context of the black experience during the postwar years. In contrast, Hickman was a preacher and semiskilled laborer. As prosperous barbers owning salons in the city’s most prestigious hotels, Jernigan, Banks, Jackson, and Stockton had cultivated the style and speech of those accustomed to associating with the state’s most powerful men. Hickman worked within a different milieu, serving primarily a very small religious community, ministering to former slaves, but restricted from performing the most sacred pastoral roles—baptizing, marrying, and burying the members of the flock—which were reserved for ordained clergy—white men. Hickman’s calling was to preach the Word, movingly, sincerely, without the need for silken eloquence that the new black community expected from its race leaders. Perhaps even in some eyes, standing in contrast to the barbers in style and speech, he embodied the negro-we-once-were. Nonetheless, to himself, he was a preacher wanting simply to establish his church and be its pastor.
The reaction of the Democrats in the wake of the convention was noteworthy. Throughout the evening, Republican speakers attacked and ridiculed the Democrats, and in return, Democratic opinion makers counterpunched, though more churlishly, calling the former U.S. senator, congressman, governor, mayor, and legislators “uncommon demagogues,” “political shysters,” “piddling white radicals,” and “white trash.” However, the editor of the Pioneer, which had been directly criticized, saw fit to portray the black attendees in a better light. It was as if the paper was saying to them, When the Republicans grow bored with all their so-called benevolence, you will see that we’re really not so bad:
The colored people filled their part well. They did all things decently and in order. They were temperate, considerate, and high-toned, and gave, throughout their proceedings, many evidences that they were worthy of the possession of their new rights and franchises.
After months, indeed years, of attacking the principle of Negro suffrage, of mocking the social and religious activities of black Minnesotans, of gleefully highlighting the misadventures of otherwise minor events, the Democratic establishment in St. Paul appeared to be having an abrupt change of heart regarding the need to show respect to black voters. Even though the black population had increased over the previous few years, black voting power remained virtually insignificant in singularly influencing the outcomes of policy discussions or elections. The hostility to black suffrage within the body politic of St. Paul, as it had twice before, remained the same in the winter of 1869. Yet, as improbable as it may seem, the Pioneer—the organ of the Democratic political establishment—overnight appeared, not just to approve the vote or even show respect to the state’s newest voters, but simply to concede to the new political fact of life.
The recent vote on the Negro suffrage amendment gave clear indication that the Minnesota Democratic Party was a minority party. In true fashion of one seeking to regain power or at least influence in the public debate, pragmatism seemed to trump principle. Black voters alone, if they were at all receptive to voting against the Party of Lincoln, would not accomplish this; but if the strategy was to stitch together alliances of disparate interest groups, as the Republicans had done in the 1850s, the party could resurrect itself to relevance, if not dominance. Already the Democrats had established ties to the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grangers, who included, as history would soon show, leading Republicans, as well. By the early 1870s their efforts would evolve into a reform movement that challenged the Republican Party and its allies—railroad and corporate monopolies, transforming the notion of reform from meaning emancipation and racial political equality to one espousing class equity. Donnelly, who would split from the Republicans to take up the antimonopoly banner, would say one year later:
Let all of those who think alike come together and reason together. The struggle between the North and South having ended, the struggle between the East and West commences. It will not be a conflict of arms but of ideas, a contest of interests—a struggle of intelligence—one side defending itself from the greed of the other.
Notwithstanding black loyalty to the Republicans that for the time being was secure, Democrats took pains to plant seeds of discontent, anticipating a time when blacks might recognize that Republicans had not provided them with genuine opportunities. Coalition building would indeed come to bear in 1884 when Grover Cleveland became the first postwar Democrat elected president of the United States, in part due to the defection of Northern black voters discouraged by Republican lethargy regarding race relations and black civil rights. Mayor Stewart had admonished the black assembly to always distrust their newfound Democratic friends, “who, after [the black man] was liberated, tried to make him a mere menial and serf in the land of freedmen.” In response to this kind of statement the Democrats accused the Republicans of hypocrisy. “The radical party, that had conferred upon the colored people the right to vote, and which demands the votes of the colored people for their candidates, did not give them a single office—not even that of a common messenger or fireman.” Democratic leaders, determined to place their party in a better light, waited for the right moment.
By March, the St. Paul Democratic Party experienced a steady stream of party bashing, from losing the Negro suffrage amendment and insufferable Republican crowing that accompanied it, to having to endure the partisan spectacle of the convention in January, to absorbing the legislative blow of a school desegregation law. Leaders knew that a party incapable of getting on the right side of history was doomed to be, at best, a debating society and at, worst, a political fossil.
On March 23, 1869, an opportunity presented itself with the commencement of the trial of a black man named Willis Harris accused of stealing a small sum of money from the room of another black man named Andrew Jackson. All morning, thirty-six men, all white, went through jury selection. Only one survived the cut. By noon, Judge William Sprigg Hall ordered Sheriff Daniel Robertson to summon twenty more men to the opening of the afternoon session. At the assigned time, jury selection resumed. In the end, a jury was impaneled. What made an otherwise mundane trial newsworthy, garnering a statewide audience, was that the new jury included five black men “presenting almost every shade of color, from the deepest black to the most delicate white.”
Considering the historical impact of the selection, the appearance of these five black men, the first of their race to serve on a Minnesota jury, would surely create a stir. It is unlikely that the sheriff, elected to his office and a man of significant political and civic stature—publisher of the Minnesota Democrat, a former mayor and state representative, and sitting chair of the Board of Education—indeed, the embodiment of the party establishment, would do anything to disrupt the racial conventions without the full concurrence of Judge Hall. In a county with over 3,500 white voters, Sheriff Robertson had brought in within two hours five eligible black men to serve. In other words, the sheriff’s deputies had to pass many houses and businesses within the Third Ward—densely occupied with white native-born and foreign-born neighbors who represented every socioeconomic level from unskilled laborer to professional, renter and property owner—to find the black prospective jurors. Nearly three months after the alleged crime, Harris was about to be tried before a jury of his racial peers. Of the jurors the Weekly Pioneer reported, “The colored citizens looked dignified and anxious, the ‘white folks’ curious.” One of the five black jurymen was whitewasher and preacher Robert Hickman.
It is evident that party leaders wanted to appoint black men to the jury, but it did not mean that any number of black men would suffice. Clearly, unemployed laborers like Harris and Jackson would not be included. What mattered to the Democrats would be selecting, and in effect, associating itself with black men of acknowledged quality and stature. Assuming that the party was determined to appeal to those blacks who were likely to be future race leaders, those whose names already had cachet, who if brought within the Democratic fold, could bring over others, undercutting, if not the power, certainly the moral authority Republicans now enjoyed. It would indeed be a political coup.
Still, the presence of black men on the jury created a stir, despite the security within the courtroom. The Minneapolis Tribune reported that when the court reconvened at 2:00 p.m., the gallery “presented an unusually animated scene”:
Our neighboring city of St. Paul has been greatly agitated over the fact that colored men have been allowed to sit on a jury there for the first time. It created an excitement only equaled by the advent of a tribe of wandering Arabs, and so aroused the refined and delicate sensibilities of the goodly citizens of St. Paul as to fill the courtroom to overflowing, and furnished the principal theme of conversation upon the streets, and in the drawing rooms, and parlors of this aristocratic metropolis.
While the party establishment represented the man on the street, it wasn’t made up of men from the streets. Rather, they were of the political and commercial aristocracy of the state who included such names as Rice, Sibley, Robertson, Fisher, Brisbane, and Maxfield. What they felt mattered more; and they wanted black men on the jury despite the outcry from their constituents. Even though the Republicans controlled the state, these Democrats controlled the city, the courts, and Board of Education; and it was in this city that Hickman and his followers resided. Merrill knew these men, having most recently served with them on various civic and business committees and, most recently, with them all on the Board of Education. The former chair of the board, James T. Maxfield, had just been elected mayor, succeeding Republican Jacob Stewart. Thus, Merrill was in the position to aid in Hickman’s selection, knowing it might give the black preacher the kind of notoriety that would appeal to potential benefactors and create for him the imprimatur of civic respectability.
It therefore is paradoxical that during these recent unsettling and highly charged months, Hickman, selected in effect by the city’s Democratic establishment while enjoying the franchise created by Republican political power, was theoretically in the enviable position of gaining support for his church and, in turn, for himself from Republicans and Democratic leaders alike. The future suddenly seemed bright. Opportunity abounded. His church could get built because both groups recognized that Pilgrim Baptist could be the spiritual, steadying anchor of relevance for this burgeoning black community within this already raucous city, and he at last would be its official pastor, licensed and ordained; all that seemed to stand in the way was the apostolic laying on of hands of the ministers of the Baptist community. However, he had not yet shown himself to be one with their fellowship.