Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota
Chad Montrie

St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2022
272 pages; 26 b/w photos and 4 maps, notes, bibliography, index; $19.95

Reviewed by Renoir Gaither

In the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote:
Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet . . . . he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson . . . . he places himself where the future becomes present.[1]

Surely, Whitman speaks of the poet as historian, and vice versa. As an historian, Chad Montrie squarely places himself at the juncture of future and present. He spoons what has been and is onto the baking sheet of what is to be. His book stands the dead on their feet, and conjures them to life. His book revels in the austerity and insobriety of a ghost story and the surprising smiles and frowns of a decent poem. His book works.

First, it is, as its author terms in the introduction, a ghost story; indeed, a familiar one. It takes up the task of probing white amnesia about—or more accurately, investment in—the “hants” of past and present racial injustice. The semantics of ghostliness carry ontological traces of being and non-being, of paradoxes and paradigms, of authenticity.

As I read this book I found myself thinking about a 1964 lecture by Martin Heidegger titled, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.”[2] Heidegger’s most basic question nearly sixty years ago was this: “What should philosophy concern itself with on the cusp of postmodernity?” Given the influence of the sciences and technology on ontological questions, Heidegger asked, “What task is reserved for thinking at the end of philosophy?” One of the philosopher’s responses—the lecture is notoriously cryptic—was to follow the call “to the thing itself.” This “call” has sparked debate ever since in philosophical circles. Should the focus be on the importance of what is truth or discerning the possibilities that truth grants us?

Montrie invites readers to ponder both simultaneously—to stand firmly in that firmament where future becomes present, which requires a combination of truth discovery and possibility creation. Consequently, amnesia about racial injustice embedded in whiteness is a kind of “truth apnea.” The ghosts of settler colonialism and racial capitalism have beaucoup baggage, and this book is as much an accounting as an exorcism of the persistence of racial exclusion in Minnesota.

Second, Montrie’s book is polemical in its insistence to reflexively upend the accrual of passivity over racial capitalism and what whiteness procures ideologically. Montrie centers his critique on whiteness and its various cleavages that act to make opaque or otherwise summon an insulating amnesia about the exercise of white supremacy as a constitutive element throughout the state’s history.

Montrie covers a lot of ground, geographically and temporally, yet conscientiously worries the problematic normativity of whiteness via a narrative cocktail of concise chronicling and insightful commentary. The book is an essential addition to past histories of Minnesota, given its timely thematic appeal, vigorous documentation, and methodical interpretation.

Previous books, such as William D. Green’s A Peculiar Imbalance: The Rise and Fall of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota (2007), Christopher P. Lehman’s Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State (2019), and Paul D. Nelson’s Fredrick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line, 1861-1912 (2002), peruse, in great depth, early investitures in racial exclusion and countervailing liberation struggles to procure political and social equality for African Americans in Minnesota. David V. Taylor’s African Americans in Minnesota (2002) gathers a concise history of African American community organizations, influential leaders, and the development of Black communities in several major Minnesota cities. Montrie’s book complements the latter manuscripts by extending analysis and geographic scope of Black urban development, housing and employment discrimination, and community organizing efforts in urban and rural Minnesota communities.

Chapter 1 provides a cursory overview of life along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in the nineteenth century up to the Civil War. Excerpts from Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice Daniel Buck’s 1904 book, Indian Outbreaks set the stage for the book’s argument that white supremacist ideology was not only pervasive among white settlers, it provided a rationale for the forced removal of Indigenous people and efforts to codify racial inequality for Black migrants during the antebellum, postbellum and Jim Crow periods. Importantly for Montrie, such a sociopolitical ideology is nourished and normalized by the “. . . familiar practice of misremembering history to dodge culpability and escape responsibility for past and present racism . . .”[3]

Montrie includes narratives of well-known figures such as Lawrence Taliaferro and missionaries Gideon and Samuel Pond. He adds accounts of notable Blacks, including Dred and Harriet Scott and Joseph Godfrey, as well as lesser-known James Thompson. Indigenous voices are glaringly absent from this chapter. Inclusion of Dakota and Ojibwe accounts and perspectives would have added important contextual counternarratives to the legacies of dispossession following settler colonialism and tragic forced marches and internment of Dakota and Ho Chunk peoples.

Chapter 2 emphasizes general white responses to postbellum Black migration to Minnesota, in particular, St. Peter in Nicollet County, Red Wing in Goodhue County, and Hastings in Dakota County. Montrie catalogues various Black and mixed-race family arrivals and their experiences in these counties in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which often resulted in Black retreat from these areas in response to limited occupational opportunities, and, in many cases, open hostility. One example was the arsonist burning of Brown’s Chapel AME in Hastings, in 1907. This incident merits greater scholarly attention, as it furthers transparency of various forms of de facto and de jure efforts to intimidate, subordinate, and exclude Blacks from securing full citizenship rights.

Through interviews, census records, newspaper articles and other sources, In Chapter 3, Montrie reconstructs the events that led to mob violence against Black strikebreakers at the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway roundhouse attack in Austin in 1922. This incident involving organized labor signaled later exclusionary practices of the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW) at the Hormel packinghouse and its subsequent transformation during the Civil Rights era to a more inclusionary organization. Montrie covers six decades and various organization histories and activities, including later efforts by the union at Hormel to strengthen worker solidarity internationally.

Chapter 4 expands upon the restrictive color lines once tacitly enforced in the state with an account of the infamous Duluth lynchings on the evening of June 15, 1920. The killing of Black circus workers Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie in the port city is well documented in academic and popular sources. But the incident is skillfully analyzed here, using an array of source materials, including court testimonies, NAACP records, interview transcripts, and material from the first and second editions of Michael Fedo’s The Lynchings in Duluth (2000).

Montrie’s focus shifts to discriminatory housing practices employed against Blacks in Edina and St. Paul in Chapter 5. For example, Edina transitioned from an interracial farming enclave in the latter half of the nineteenth century to an all-white suburb by the 1930s. This was accelerated by suburbanization tied to mass transit trolley service and associative land development. The use of racial covenants, intimidation, and harassment, paired with tepid responses from local and state governments in enforcing weak fair housing ordinances and laws conspired with other racial inequities in employment, hastened the return to a racially segregated community.

The chapter clarifies how, even with the passage of open housing laws passed in the early 1960s, enforcement can suffer through budgetary strangling, unscrupulous realtor schemes, and social backlash. Using the narrative of Marion and Mary Taylor’s efforts to build a home in St. Paul’s Morningside district in the late 1950s, Montrie does an excellent job describing the enormous task of multiracial coalition building and community organizing to resist housing discrimination. And yet, despite their success at the time, efforts to more fully integrate the city have not come to fruition. Census Bureau estimates for 2020 find Black or African Americans comprise 2.7%, while whites comprise 85.6% of Edina’s resident population. Estimates for 2021 find Black or African Americans comprise 15.5% of St. Paul residents. Census estimates for 2021 find Black population at 7.4% and whites at 83% in the entire state. Interestingly, disparate forms and/or levels of housing and employment discrimination account for these geographic patterns.

Chapter 6 walks readers through the redevelopment projects in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood that included plans for the construction of the I-94 highway which tore the neighborhood in half during the 1950s and ’60s. The author details the long, arduous, and contentious battles between neighborhood advocacy groups and organizations and the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SPHRA), which initiated the package of plans. Critically valuable are Montrie’s revelations about the disparate influences by various groups from the St. Paul NAACP, real estate agents, neighborhood social clubs, the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association, and many others on city government leaders. While studies and oral histories have noted the inequitable disruption to greater Rondo’s residents along racial lines, Montrie demonstrates how efforts by groups such as the United Citizens League (UCL) in the 1960s “effectively blocked low-income Black families in Rondo from finding affordable public housing outside of their shrinking neighborhoods.”[4]

The book’s final chapter highlights residents’ efforts at organizing housing integration in Bloomington. Montrie documents the history of the community’s human relations council, founded in 1964, and its efforts to address housing discrimination in the city. Guided by Black activists Josie Johnson and James Tillman, the council applied various strategies to achieve greater housing integration. The author deftly catalogs these strategies, documenting objections whites raised in the process, and analyzing the council’s internal tensions and decision-making processes.

Whiteness in Plain View provides a strong entry point for readers interested in the evolution of efforts to create fair housing and employment practices in Minnesota. The geographic scope allows readers to better appreciate historical institutional barriers to full citizen rights and economic opportunities afforded to African Americans in the state and throughout the country. Included are archival black and white photographs, maps, and illustrations that relate well to surrounding content, along with bountiful notes and a well-organized bibliography divided into primary and secondary sources.

For Montrie, the current racial order is a consequence of the formative role of Minnesota whites’ efforts to exclude and contain Black residents through an evolving set of means: from government aid to collusion with private mortgage lenders and real estate agents, from extralegal racial violence, intimidation, and threats to ideological tools such as discriminatory media and educational institutional practices and policies.

The book’s historical argument revolves around the fossilization of racial exclusion through Minnesota whites’ adoption of historical amnesia and fiction-making that perniciously erects false explanations and absolution for recurring racial injustice. Like Whitman’s call to utilize the past in order to place oneself where “the future becomes present,” Montrie’s collection of histories hails a similar promise, one that seeks to exorcise an obstinate haunting.

Renoir Gaither is a poet and former academic librarian. He has held positions at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan and Magrath Library at the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the Ramsey County Historical Society Editorial Board.

NOTES

[1] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855, The Walt Whitman Archive, Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price, accessed July 27, 2022, http://www.whitmanarchive.org.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

[3] Chad Montrie, Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2022), 38.

[4] Montrie, 171.