Year of the History-Makers

l-r, top to bottom: St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, III, MN Attorney-General Elect Keith Ellison; Tonyus Chavers; Angela Conley, Ilhan Omar, Nerita Hughes, Brittany Baker (left), MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo & MN African American Heritage Museum & Gallery

2018 proved to be the year of history-makers for African Americans across the country, and Minnesota, in particular. From landmark elections and groundbreaking appointments to Hall of Famers and historical institutions, the MSR was on the frontlines covering Black Minnesota as it positioned itself for sweeping change.

Political firsts

While politicians across the country aimed for blue and red to color the 2018 midterm elections, it was a decidedly Black wave that will impact the 2019 landscape.

And Black voters showed up and showed out across the country, even helping to push historically red states and seats closer towards the blue line.

The election was full of historic wins, especially right here in Minnesota.

Among the political firsts, Keith Ellison took home the prize as the first African American elected attorney general or any statewide office in Minnesota. Winning Ellison’s former seat, Ilhan Omar is set to be the first-ever Somali American to serve in Congress.

Medaria Arradondo, Minneapolis’ first Black chief of police, was appointed to serve his first full term in 2019. And, let’s not forget Melvin Carter III who kicked off his historic term in January as St. Paul’s first-ever Black mayor.

There was also an increase in Black representation and wins across all levels, from city councils to school boards, as well as beyond the Twin Cities. Angela Conley is the first Black person to be elected to serve on the Hennepin County board of commissioners. After an appointment by outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton, Judge Juanita Freeman will be the first Black district judge to serve in Washington County. And Mike Elliott will be the first Liberian American to serve as mayor of Brooklyn Center.

History makers

This year’s history-makers also include longtime teacher Tonyus Chavers, who played on one of the eight original Women’s Professional Basketball League teams. She was inducted into its Hall of Fame as a “Trailblazer of the Game.”

Brittany Baker, graduated as St. Paul’s first Black woman firefighter in 10 years; Nerita Hughes became North Hennepin Technical College first African American dean, and the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery was the first of its kind to open its doors in the Twin Cities this past September.

While it wasn’t necessarily history-making, Minnesota did show a marked increase in diversity while hosting this year’s Super Bowl as compared to when it last hosted in 1992.

Buried history

In the midst of highlighting our communities, the MSR even unearthed Black history at Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery,  Minneapolis’ oldest cemetery, which holds the remains of John W. Cheatham, the first African American firefighter in Minneapolis; Morgan Jones, a former slave of a Virginia tobacco field who moved to Minnesota after gaining his freedom; and William C. Goodridge, who was born slave in 1806, freed by age 16 and started his first business — a barbershop — at 18 years old.

A look to the future

While all of these firsts signal a welcome wave of change in Minnesota, our communities still face persistent racial disparities, which led to the Twin Cities being named the fourth worst place to live in the country. But, leaders are poised and hopeful for change.

“We’ve got strong leadership at the director levels of all of these critical areas, [from] social work to human services to health to public safety,” said Alex Tittle, Hennepin County Disparity Reduction Director. “This next group of commissioners, new leadership, attorney general, Chief Rondo — you’ve got a ton of people who are at the table who are focused and cognizant of the issues and they’re smart enough and they’re in leadership positions.

“If we can’t deal with this right now with who we’ve got in place, shame on us. The World, the county, the community is depending us to do it right, [and] we’re positioned to do it.”