What could draw Blacks to Historic Fort Snelling?

The MN Historical Society is holding meetings to find out

Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling


Historic Fort Snelling needs a makeover, and the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) is seeking community input in its multi-year improvement project.

“Modern amenities are necessary to better tell the many stories of the site’s history. This is the first time we are considering the site in a holistic way,” states the MNHS website. These amenities include a new visitor center, a plaza, and landscape space along the Mississippi River.

MNHS wants to restore the area and upgrade the State-owned land as a destination place for locals. It is seeking at least $34 million in State funds to upgrade Fort Snelling facilities by 2020, the historic site’s bicentennial. However, concerns have been raised about possible plans by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who announced last year that they are meeting with a developer for building affordable housing at the Upper Post of Fort Snelling.

Alisha Volanti
Alisha Volante

Despite its military-like reputation, Fort Snelling’s history is important to all Minnesotans, and especially Blacks and other people of color. Alisha Volante, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate in African American history, said too many people are unware of the historic site.

Volante is a community engagement facilitator of a series of MNHS community meetings and open houses. “I am a product of North Minneapolis,” she said at a March 24 session at Minneapolis Urban League in North Minneapolis. Other than school children, she rarely sees Blacks at Fort Snelling, though she said she remembered a Black family who came from the MSP Airport on a layover.

“How do we get people out to that space besides [school] field trips?” she asked.

Dan Spock, the MNHS director of the History Center Museum, Exhibitions & Diversity Initiatives, noted that there are many stories that have been largely hidden, such as the fact that Fort Snelling was the landing spot for many Blacks in the pre- and post-slavery 19th century.

“Our communities [of color] need to know the story of Fort Snelling,” Voices for Racial Justice Executive Director Vina Kay told the MSR. She is an MNHS consultant. “[White] Minnesotans need to know about that” as well.

Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor

“We have such rich African American [history] here that we tend not to hear about,” noted MNHS staff member Chris Taylor. “The Dred Scott case was a national story, but a lot of those national stories [are] on frontier life and what it was like for free Blacks. But when ‘civilization’ came, they tended to lose their rights. That’s a very interesting story.”

Archie Givens remembers being at Fort Snelling on school field trips as a youngster, and later as an adult at celebratory events over the years. “I value our history, and it should be preserved there,” said Givens at last week’s meeting. “There is more to Fort Snelling than meets the eye.”

However, last week’s community session had more MNHS staffers (four) than residents (two).  These meetings should instead be subtitled, “Why should I come?” suggested MNHS Board President Phyllis Rawls Goff, who also was on hand.

Taylor, who heads the MNHS’s inclusion and community engagement, later told the MSR that he wasn’t discouraged by the meager turnout. “I think our default is, when we don’t get people to work with us, to do it ourselves,” he explained. “That’s a dangerous thing. We’re the first major museum in the country to have a department like this.”

The Fort Snelling project is his office’s first major undertaking, he notes. “This is the first big project.”

The community meetings are “a real test for this institution to stay the course,” continued Taylor. “We’re starting off with meetings with one or two people. Changing the process is not an option. Making the process work is what we need to happen.”

Kay said building relationships especially “with communities that haven’t been really part of the decision making, planning, and haven’t felt welcomed” is hard work. “It takes so much time, effort and intentionality,” she observed.

“[It’s] not just [people] like Chris Taylor — that’s his job. We need the [other] MNHS leaders to sit down with all kinds of people — and not just donors, but with people who currently don’t know they have a place there,” said Kay.

Nonetheless, the 90-minute meeting last week did produce suggestions from Givens and others who were present on how Fort Snelling can be best utilized both presently and when the renovation project is expected to be completed in about three years.

“The whole Fort Snelling issue is bigger than Fort Snelling,” said Givens afterwards. “My takeaway is the sincerity and seriousness of the Historical Society [about] this. They have a real interest, and I think this is a chance to showcase that. It’s about life and history in Minnesota.”

“I think the meeting went really well,” said Volante. “I think we established some things that…the Historical Society needs to bring to the table, but also some different ways we can engage the community that is going to be helpful moving forward.

“Ultimately, what I don’t want is to have conversations that aren’t actually going to help,” said Volante, who is an independent contractor with MNHS. “I’m really interested in a commitment [from MNHS], and one that makes sense and not like politics. I love the history and love talking about history — African American history and Minnesota history.

“But because I know that history, I know the legacy of promises that are made and not kept, or the ways in which the Black community has been used to a particular end that didn’t benefit that community.”

The remaining MNHS community meeting schedule is as follows:

  • April 14, 6-8 pm at St. Paul’s Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, Club Room C
  • May 21, 2-4 pm at Minneapolis Urban League
  • June 11, 2-4 pm at Hallie Q. Brown

“I hope that we can move to a point where we have a variety of voices around the table, and just community people around the table,” said Volante. “[Then] those opinions, suggestions… from the community actually can be seen at this new historic Fort Snelling in 2020.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.