History isn’t just about the stories of heroes, heroines and happy victories; it’s often brutal, fractured, disturbing and downright despicable. While Minnesota marks the northern blade of America’s spine, when it comes to episodes of ugly, unsettling history, our great state is right there in the mad middle. A slew of streets, parks and buildings may be named after Alexander Ramsey, who was a staunch advocate against slavery while the Civil War unfolded during his term as the state’s second governor, but Ramsey also openly despised the Dakota people and endorsed their extermination. In a different era, three African-American employees of the John Robinson Circus were lynched by a racist mob of Duluth residents in 1920 for an accusation decidedly lacking in evidence.
Fast-forward to the present moment: At the Hennepin History Museum, staff and an army of volunteers have undertaken the task of creating a detailed inventory of every single object in its collection. As they open old boxes, they’re finding more than old pay stubs and tax returns: the head of a beloved lion, a box of crackers from the 1920s, a child’s doll dressed in a Klu Klux Klan robe. Wait, what? In Minnesota?
Likely a mass-produced doll with a homemade costume, the toy belonged to a young girl living near Lake of the Isles in the 1920s who “probably saw her parents wearing these same garments right here in Minnesota,” says the museum’s Executive Director Cedar Phillips. She also acknowledges that, when she discovered the doll, “it was like something came out and bit [me].”
Minnesota was once home to 51 chapters of the Klu Klux Klan
While members of the organization served as church deacons, politicians and small business owners, they also openly harassed people of African-American and Jewish descent, immigrants and anyone who opposed Prohibition. Their institutionalized vitriol also directly contributed to the unbridled mob mentality that led to the tragic Duluth lynchings. In a land of “Minnesota nice,” we’ve also unleashed our fair share of “Minnesota mean.”
And yet artifacts such as the KKK doll found in the basement of the Hennepin History Museum offer an opportunity to stare ugly history right in the face – and to think about the ways in which the troubling themes of history repeat themselves in the present moment. “Our role as a museum is to be a place where conversations can happen and where we can be relevant to current events. And these items are a way to talk about some of these difficult stories,” Phillips says.
On the fourth Saturday of every month, the public is invited to attend what the museum calls “inventory blitzes,” and you can even roll up your sleeves and get your hands on some Hennepin County history. Sounds like more fun – and perhaps more thought-provoking – than helping your aunt clean out her basement.
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