Dark 2 Dawn – A Bike Ride Through Black History
“Was your master a righteous man?”
“He owned negroes, how righteous could he be?”
History came alive in the early morning hours at Fort Snelling as the bike tour met Dred Scott, an enslaved man made famous by the Supreme Court decision bearing his name.
Each summer the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota hosts Dark 2 Dawn, an overnight bike tour of the Twin Cities. The tour stops highlight the history of African Americans in Minneapolis and St Paul.
At 2 am, the 2016 tour gathered fireside at Fort Snelling State Park to participate in a reenactment with Dred Scott. His story drew us in as he proudly talked of his pregnant wife, our empathy twisting as the reality of his child’s future was laid out before us. A child’s legal status as free or slave was set by the mother’s. Both Dred Scott and his wife Harriet were enslaved people.
Jerry’s question “Was your master a righteous man?” reflects an abstracted view of the realities of our shared history of slavery in the United States. The actor’s response nailed it. A reflective silence fell upon the group of cyclists.
And that’s the point of this annual event. The riders stop and discuss where the Twin Cities have been and how that plays out in our community today.
The opportunity to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations has been extremely valuable to me personally and professionally. I’ve found that developing the ability to listen, really listen, to other perspectives makes for closer relationships and more informed policy work in the political realm.
This year’s Dark 2 Dawn theme examined some intersections of the Native American and African American experience in the Twin Cities.
American Indian Movement Interpretive Center
I’m old enough to have heard of AIM, the American Indian Movement, while growing up but I hadn’t realized that AIM got its start in Minneapolis in the late 1960’s. One of our first stops of the evening was the AIM Interpretive Center, which is an historical repository and gallery showcasing the political and educational work of the AIM.
AIM was started in response to cases of police brutality against the Native American population. One of the original projects of the group was to track police actions in the local community. Low tech walkie-talkies and photos were the precursor to today’s social media.
Today, Black Lives Matter chapters are actively working in the Twin Cities organizing protests after the shootings of unarmed black men by local police. One tactic being used is temporarily blocking traffic in high visibility locations such as I-94 leading to St Paul, the Governor’s Mansion, and most recently at the State Fair.
The use of peaceful and symbolic protests are an important part of a free society and its equally important to understand the messages being conveyed. In this case, personal safety in public spaces has not been equally enjoyed by everyone. Until the wider community is fully aware of the experiences local people have suffered through, it will be impossible to conduct open and constructive examinations of our police departments.
Lake Calhoun / Bde Maka Ska
Lake Calhoun is one of the jewels in Minneapolis’ chain of lakes. It was also named by surveyors in 1817 after John C Calhoun, who at the time was US Secretary of War. Calhoun was a pro slavery politician holding various offices including a stint as Vice-President. It was during an 1837 Senate speech that he argued that “the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two (races), is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.”
A call to rename the lake is working its way through the various legal entities involved since it wasn’t clear if the name can legally be changed and which government agency would have jurisdiction. The short term compromise of signs adding the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska – meaning White Earth lake – recognizes the historical presence of Native Americans in the area.
Enacting a name change assumes a community consensus to do so – which doesn’t yet exist. The upscale “Calhoun brand” is considered a valuable asset to many businesses in the area (including the Calhoun Flats apartments where we are living this summer) thus any changes are being rejected as too costly. Other arguments against the change state that the name is divorced from it’s origins. Meaning no one knows who Calhoun was and what he fought for – except that is not actually true for some local residents who find the honorific name pretty offensive.
How do we decide what honorifics need to change over time and how do we engage in honest dialogue on their meaning and intent?
In this case, surveyors renamed landmarks as a precursor to the military displacing indigenous people as the country expanded westward. This particular survey work preceded the building of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers – an area considered by the Dakota as the center of the earth.
My childhood memories of Fort Snelling State Park were old buildings and white actors playing soldiers and their wives. Tours focused on these military settlers and learning how they lived in these primitive settings. This may all be simply what I took away from the visits as a child… but the history being portrayed here these days is more complex and nuanced.
Dred Scott had been living as a slave in Illinois, a free state, and later was brought to Fort Snelling in 1937, within the free Wisconsin Territory, by his owner. Eventually, the Scott family sued for their freedom based on their time in free territory and his daughter’s birth when in transit on the Mississippi (also considered free territory.) It took eleven years winding through the legal system before the US Supreme Court eventually ruled against them in Dred Scott v Sandford.
In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Taney, the Court ruled that Africans and their descendants, whether free or enslaved, could not ever be American citizens according to the Constitution and therefore could not sue in US courts. The Missouri Compromise which regulated slavery in western territories was also ruled unconstitutional. This court decision helped push the country towards its Civil War.
It was fascinating to learn how the military presence in expanding areas of the United States extended slavery into free states and territories. Most military officers came from the wealthy classes and as such were given an additional stipend to pay for servants. Slaves brought from the southern states were not entitled to receive these payments so the officers pocketed the funds. This policy subsidized transporting slaves across the expanding country versus all officers hiring servants in the free states.
In my experience, Minnesota doesn’t usually come up when talking about slavery in America. Generally, it’s easy for whites here to dismiss slavery as only happening in Southern States patting ourselves on the back without acknowledging that we, too, are still living with its legacy in our communities.
The land surrounding Fort Snelling was ceded by Native Americans in an 1851 treaty in which the US failed to meet its financial obligations ultimately leading to the Dakota War of 1862. Sacred ceremonial and burial ground has now been reclaimed from a planned housing development as Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob Park recognizing its significance to the Dakota people and the history of Minnesota.
Acknowledging this history brings context to current legal battles waged by Native Americans for recognition of treaty rights related to everything from fishing allotments in Minnesota lakes to historical and environmental protections from oil pipelines.
Gordon Parks Memorial
As the night progressed, our timeline did as well. Rolling into downtown St Paul at 4:30 am we stopped at a pocket park located next to the Landmark Center which is slated to become Gordon Parks Plaza.
Our guide was Robin Hickman, grand niece of the photographer, writer, film maker and composer Gordon Parks. The future park will honor a lifetime of ground-breaking creative work by the man who was the first African American photojournalist to work for Life magazine starting in 1948.
Having lived his formative years in St Paul, Parks got his start as a fashion photographer in a local department store which contributed to his skill as a portrait and documentary photographer; work that is celebrated worldwide.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr Park
The ride ends back at our starting point, the recreation center at MLK Park in the Kingwood neighborhood. Two years ago we spent the summer living a few blocks away so I’ve spent time here enjoying the public art under the lush, shady trees. Since that time the playground has been refurbished with new equipment celebrating achievements by African Americans. One of my favorites is the train-shaped climbing gym that highlights some of the 57 patents held by Elijah McCoy, inventor of train parts desired by workers wanting only equipment that was “the real McCoy”.
I’ve always found that riding bikes enlarges my world; expanding and filling in the details of the neighborhood around me. This is my third year riding the tour and each time it has me reshaping what I thought I knew about my hometown.
A scrumptious breakfast buffet welcomes the weary as we break bread together and solidify personal connections made through the overnight adventure. It’s not just the act of riding 50 miles, it’s also the symbolism of riding from Dark 2 Dawn.