DFL pushes historically ignorant reparations bill

The bill

Alpha News reports:

Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation this week to establish an advisory council that would examine a possible reparations program. Introduced in the last days of the legislative session, HF 5456 would also require the State of Minnesota to “issue an apology for the past occurrence of chattel slavery and notable slave owners in Minnesota.”

Known as the “Minnesota Migration Act,” HF 5456 makes several historical declarations, including:

Slave owners invested heavily in the territory that is now known as the state of Minnesota and after slavery ended in the United States, the slave owners were compensated for the loss of their slaves. Those persons who were held in bondage were never compensated for their labor, despite the promise of ’40 acres and a mule;’

Although slavery was illegal in Minnesota, Dred Scott and Harriet Scott were held in  military bondage at Fort Snelling, along with other African Americans who were used for enslaved labor by United States Army agents. This was in violation of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820;

“In turn,” Alpha News continues,

…the Minnesota Migration Act requires the state to issue a formal apology. Specifically, HF 5456 requires that the State of Minnesota “must issue an apology for the past occurrence of chattel slavery and notable slave owners in Minnesota.”

Among other things, the apology issued by the state would be:

* “for holding Dred and Harriet Scott in military slavery at Fort Snelling;”

And what is all this building up to? As Alpha News reports:

In addition, the Minnesota Migration Act would establish an advisory council to “develop criteria to determine how to compensate persons and address systems harmed by these anti-Black practices.”

In short, the advisory council would lay the groundwork for a potential reparations program. The language of HF 5456 says the advisory council would “determine what form of compensation should be awarded, through what instrumentalities, and who should be eligible for the compensation.”

The history

Dred Scott was “owned” by Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon serving in the United States Army, who brought him to Fort Snelling in 1837. At that time Minnesota did not exist and Fort Snelling sat in what was then the territory of Wisconsin. It is difficult to see why the state of Minnesota should apologize or pay reparations for actions taken before it existed.

Not only that, but, as I wrote in our magazine Thinking Minnesota back in 2020:

The lands that would become Minnesota had long-standing legal protections against slavery. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory, which included Minnesota east of the Mississippi River. [The] “Missouri Compromise” [of 1820] also barred slavery from the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, which included southern and western Minnesota.

Indeed, it was this stay at Fort Snelling in the free territory of Wisconsin, later Minnesota, upon which Scott based his claim to freedom in his famous court case.

Subsequent events further enshrined protections against slavery in Minnesota law:

In February 1857, as another step towards statehood and despite opposition from southerners fearing another free state, Congress passed an enabling act allowing Minnesota to draft a state constitution. On June 1st, voters were to elect a convention to meet on July 13th to draft it.

The election took place against the backdrop of the Dred Scott decision and escalating violence between pro-and anti-slavery forces in Kansas. In most states the constitutional convention was a non-partisan affair, but in Minnesota it was inextricably linked with slavery, the issue to the fore with candidates running on party lines. Republicans sought to block slavery’s expansion and secure votes for Minnesota’s blacks, Democrats fought to block both. The St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat described the fundamental issue facing the convention as “White Supremacy Against Negro Equality.” Democrats warned that Republican control would mean “scenes of violence and bloodshed, as they have in Kansas.” The results were 59 Republicans and 55 Democrats elected.

Upon meeting, the convention split along party lines. After the first day, each held its own convention and drafted its own constitution. A joint committee of five Republicans and five Democrats produced a compromise, with the Democrats conceding Minnesota as a “free” state, and the Republicans conceding on votes for blacks. A referendum ratified the constitution in October, the second section of the first Article reading: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the State otherwise there is the punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

But Minnesota’s constitution arrived in Washington, D.C. at the same time
as Kansas’ pro-slavery constitution. Congressional Democrats fearing another free state, blocked Minnesota’s application, with one warning: “If you admit Minnesota and exclude Kansas, the spirit of our revolutionary forefathers is utterly extinct if the government can last for one short twelvemonth.” Ultimately, Kansans rejected their constitution and continued as a territory. Minnesota was admitted as a state on May 11th, 1858.

Civil War broke out in April 1861 over the issue of slavery. By the end of that year, Minnesota had enlisted 4,400 volunteers in four infantry regiments, “about ten percent of the white males of military age in the state,” historian Norman K. Risjord notes. In all, the young state raised eleven infantry regiments which fought in major battles such as First Bull Run, Mill Springs, Corinth, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Perryville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, and Nashville. Marshall Tanick notes that:

More than 100 African-American soldiers from Minnesota served in the Union Army and several more in the Navy during the Civil War…a remarkably high percentage of the fewer than 300 total African-Americans, including women and children, in the state at the time.

As I wrote in our magazine Thinking Minnesota back in 2023:

Records show that 21,982 Minnesotans enlisted in the United States’ armed forces between 1861 and 1865. 635 of these died in combat and 1,936 as a result of disease or accident, equal, proportionately, to 86,000 dead from today’s population. Minnesota paid a high price in blood to save the Union and end the evil of slavery.

In 1868, Minnesota’s Republicans got that which they had had to concede during the constitutional negotiations when the state’s voters approved a colorblind electorate by a 9,000-vote margin, two years before the 15th Amendment went into effect. 

Most of these “apologies” are simply a preliminary to a shakedown and this bill is, in fairness, more open about that than most. But it relies on the public not knowing the real history. A look back over the history of this state shows why Minnesotans should oppose HF 5456. So, too, does a walk though the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where 52 Minnesotans lay buried.