Local author chronicles St. Paul’s civil rights history

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The civil rights history of St. Paul is the focus of a yet-to-be-published book by local historian and educator Arthur McWatt titled Crusaders for Justice: A Chronicle of Protest by Agitators, Advocates and Activists in Their Struggle for Civil and Human Rights in St. Paul (1885-1985).

“The whole basis of the book is to give a certain amount of honor to the people who persisted in the struggle for civil and human rights, and who in many cases were the people who first made the charge,” said McWatt in an interview with the Spokesman-Recorder.

A native of St. Paul, McWatt’s interest in the history of black struggle in St. Paul began while he was a graduate student in the late 1950s and early ’60s at the University of Minnesota. McWatt retired from 35 years of teaching in the St. Paul Public Schools in 1990. Since then he has pursued his lifelong passion of researching and writing about the history of Minnesota’s black community.

For this book, McWatt combed through decades of articles from the local black press to uncover and present what is likely the most thoroughly documented chronicle of the black civil rights struggle in St. Paul. The product of McWatt’s intellectual labor is a painstakingly researched history of black people’s resistance to racism and discrimination in St. Paul in particular and Minnesota in general.

In the preface, McWatt explains that some of the people highlighted in the book “had been crusaders, while others were educators, agitators or advocates who informed, chided, or even scolded their followers to act, or who served as their mediators or surrogates in confrontations with authorities. Oftentimes they were conciliatory but other times argumentative, but their effectiveness was often proven by their persistence in demanding equal rights for all and their ability to articulate citizen needs.”

McWatt situates black people’s local fight for justice within the broader context of regional and national developments, which played a large role in carving out the channels through which these struggles flowed as well as conditioning the choices and methods chosen by the protagonists highlighted in the book. He moves seamlessly through the early history of the black presence in Minnesota to recent times, in the process spanning the scope of the black experience in St. Paul and much of Minnesota.

McWatt begins the book by highlighting the lives and contributions of black pioneers like George Bongo, the first known black settler in Minnesota, and Robert T. Hickman, the founder of Pilgrim Baptist Church. From there he proceeds forward to discussing the pre-Civil War era and the struggles of black people during reconstruction, paying attention to important mileposts such as the famous Dred Scott decision and the struggle waged by black Minnesotans in 1868 to win the right to vote.

McWatt’s history moves on from the post-Civil War period to highlight the struggles of the early 20th century, the World War periods, and the Civil Rights Movement. Of particular interest to those concerned with black leadership in the labor movement is McWatt’s outlining of the contributions of leaders like Charles James and Frank Boyd, who were active in both the local labor movement and the struggle for civil rights.

A very interesting and intriguing aspect of the book is McWatt’s interweaving of his personal and family history, which is fascinating in and of itself, within the broader historical narrative. He was born in St. Paul in 1926 to a Guyanese immigrant father who worked as a Pullman Porter on the Northern Pacific Railroad. His mother was a political activist and labor leader who served on the international executive board of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

“My father was not a supporter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He joined the company union, which at times caused friction in the household,” said McWatt.

He went on to explain the important role played by his mother in union and community affairs. “She was chosen along with Frank Boyd as one of the national co-chairpersons for the original March on Washington Movement,” explained McWatt.

The March on Washington Movement was initiated during World War II by the Sleeping Car Porters union in response to anti-black job discrimination in the war industries. It was called off by the union’s leader, A. Phillip Randolph; however, the effort inspired the famous 1963 March on Washington for civil rights.

In addition to historical vignettes about his own journey and that of his mother, McWatt brings out the important role played by his wife, Katie Curry McWatt, in the struggles of the civil rights era and today.

McWatt is currently in the process of getting the book published. “I’m looking forward to getting it in print,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to give to the community to let them know about the history and contributions of these people who pursued justice persistently.”

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