The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Midwest has always been a site of Black political activism

Seeing the region’s racial complexity helps us to understand its inequality.

Protesters gather outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department on April 17 as demonstrations continue days after police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

All eyes are on the Upper Midwest, where young people are marching in protest after the police killing of Daunte Wright, 20, just miles from the trial of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd last May.

That the Midwest has emerged as a key site of both racist policing and anti-racist activism may be surprising for Americans who imagine the region as White. The Midwest underwrites core American populist beliefs, asserting who is and who isn’t a part of the polity. Yet more than 7 million people who identify as Black reside in the Midwest, more than any other region except for the South. Taking seriously the presence and experiences of Black people and other people of color disrupts the bootstrapper ideology that anchors the region and shows the lie of the Midwest being deeply committed to egalitarianism and meritocracy.

Young Black activists are now taking a historical legacy of resistance and pushing for transformational change in the heartland.

When the Midwest is imagined as White, its cities with huge Black populations such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis are surgically removed to evoke a time and a place that has actually never existed, and wherein midsize cities such as Peoria and Des Moines have no Black residents to speak of. But the region was always home to African Americans — and they persistently agitated in an attempt to shake off the yoke of second-class citizenship.

This activism emerged even before Black Americans made up a significant proportion of the population in the Midwest.

In 1829, when Ohio passed racially exclusionary laws and a wave of anti-Black mob violence forced thousands of Black residents to leave the state, activists organized the nation’s first colored convention to protest. Over the next seven decades, national conventions strategized around the issues of suffrage, labor and emigration. Statewide conventions in the Midwest focused on the particularities of regional racism, being barred from voting and militia service, a lack of public schools for Black children and the inability to testify against White people in court. With the exception of the Dakotas, every Midwestern state held at least one such convention.

Dred Scott’s famous appeal for freedom arose from his time living in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory and was filed in Missouri. Scott claimed that his eight years residing in the Midwest’s free states made his enslavement illegal. In one of its most important rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed in 1857 that the Constitution never intended for Black people to be considered citizens and thus did not afford them the rights of citizenship.

It was only after the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment that this critical decision was overturned. Even then, the Black male delegates at the colored conventions in the Midwest continued to demand full citizenship rights on account of their Civil War service.

Meanwhile, between 1840 and 1880, the Black Midwestern population more than quadrupled, outpacing Black growth nationwide. Weary bodies left Southern plantations for agrarian homesteads. They labored with little rest planting crops, building railroads and slaughtering livestock, all at high risk and low pay. By 1900, half a million Black people resided in the region, constituting the largest African American population outside of the South.

In the early 20th century, Black Americans began moving to growing cities across the Midwest, where they encountered the continual threat of racist mob violence. Fears of labor unrest, economic competition and Black World War I soldiers challenging racial hierarchies heightened regional tensions. For example, in 1917 in East St. Louis, a group of White men drove through the Black neighborhood shooting indiscriminately. African Americans came together to protect their families, mistakenly killing a police officer. Whites retaliated violently for three days, leaving at least 100 Black residents dead and nearly 6,000 homeless.

In 1919 in Chicago, African Americans organized following the death of a Black teenager, who drowned after crossing an invisible line dividing the “White” and “Black” parts of Lake Michigan. After a week of rioting, 38 people were dead and 1,000 homes burned. That same year in Omaha, a mob of 10,000 people kidnapped laborer Will Brown, lynched and mutilated him, pausing to pose for a picture before heading toward the Black neighborhood. Armed Black men stationed at the neighborhood’s entrance thwarted the mob’s plans to further terrorize the community.

During the civil rights era, key moments originated in the Midwest, such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which began in Topeka, Kan. Protesters in Cicero, Ill., and Milwaukee faced violent backlash as they marched to end racially restrictive housing policies. In 1967, many smaller Midwestern cities experienced urban uprisings. Gary, Ind., held the first National Black Political Convention in 1972, declaring that “the American system does not work for the masses of our people.”

In the half-century since, African American Midwesterners continue to mobilize, starting voter registration drives and conducting labor organizing and campaigns to end police brutality. Little-known local organizations such as the anti-STRESS movement in 1970s Detroit, the Organization for Black Struggle in 1980s St. Louis and the 1990s Black Panther Militia, started by Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee, all demonstrated the continuity of Black Midwestern protest.

In the 21st century, Black demonstrators routinely took to the streets throughout the region after police killings, most famously in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. George Floyd’s death directly led to the 2020 Minneapolis protests, but the killings of Philando Castile and David C. Smith added to the collective memory of police violence encouraging local restlessness.

Indeed, the history of both anti-Black racism and the Black struggle against it cannot fully be told without considering the Midwest.

While Midwestern cities continually rank high on “best places to live” lists, the canyon dividing Black and White Midwesterners on every quality of life measure grows larger each year. A recent Brookings Institution report linked Midwestern racial segregation to increased mortality from covid-19. Even soft-sounding euphemisms such as the “Minnesota Paradox” attempt to distance the practice from what it is: racism. We get hoodwinked when the region’s racial disparities are presented as merely incidental, accidental and unrepresentative.

As historian Jeffrey Helgeson wrote on the regional impact of the Great Migration, “The main lesson of the black Midwest is that this is a region with a history and present deeply divided by the fact that some people’s opportunity has depended upon others’ exclusion.”

For more than two centuries, Black Midwestern restlessness has been an attempt to right these wrongs. Daunte Wright’s killing, Adam Toledo’s killing, James Scurlock’s killing and countless others are painful, violent reminders of this truth. Until a genuine reckoning with the region’s interpersonal and structural racism occurs, the Black Midwest will not rest.