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Black history is in focus at Moorhead's Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County

A new exhibit looks at prominent African Americans in the area since the 1870s.

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The Horton Adams family was one of the prominent Black barbershop families in the late 1800s in Fargo-Moorhead.
Contributed / Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County
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MOORHEAD — When she was the vice president of the Black Student Association at North Dakota State University, Gabby Clavo was surprised when she found out that many members weren't aware of much local Black history.

She used that as motivation when helping set up the new exhibit, “Stories of Local Black History,” at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County , where she is the communications manager. The display runs through Oct. 9.

“That really shows you, people like you have been here for a long time,” she says.

The show traces a significant number of African Americans in the area back to the founding of Fargo and Moorhead in the 1870s.

In the first couple of decades in the community, about 300 African Americans lived here when the overall population was a couple thousand.

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James Condell, an acclaimed jazz guitarist, was active in recruiting African American teachers to Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Contributed / Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County

With railroads coming through the area, cities emerged and citizens had basic needs, like food, shelter and cleanliness. While common service jobs were available to African Americans, some saw a chance to work for themselves as barbers. It wasn’t just Fargo-Moorhead that had African American barbers, but also Fergus Falls, Battle Lake and Ada in Minnesota and Casselton and Sheldon in North Dakota.

“Americans believed Black men were the best barbers," says Markus Krueger, HCSCC program director. "The height of luxury for a white man was getting a shave and a haircut from a Black tonsorial artist. This was a good job for a Black man to have."

The show looks at notable Black businessmen like Julius and Anna Taylor who ran Taylor’s Tonsorial Palace, one of the largest local barbershops in the 1880s. He also wrote for the Fargo Argus newspaper and by the end of the decade had moved to Chicago to start the first African American newspaper there. He would become a prominent member of the city, and she became a notable artist.

One of the first local Black barbers was Felix Battles, a former slave who fought in the Civil War in the 18th United States Colored Infantry and moved to Moorhead in 1873 to become a barber. A statue honoring Battles is in the works.

Frank Gordon was another local barber who was more involved in Fargo politics, running for alderman in 1900, though he was soundly defeated and received a death threat leading up to the election. The family moved west, his sons became doctors and his grandson, Dexter Gordon, became a legendary jazz saxophonist.

A display of an old barber’s chair and equipment, including a hot comb used in salons to straighten out curly hair, is next to a video screen showing interviews with contemporary black barbers in Fargo-Moorhead, Wil Dort from Skill Cutz and Delson Saintal of Dakota Barber Academy.

Clavo was aware of the social importance of Black barbershops in society, but she was surprised by just what a force they were in Fargo-Moorhead’s early days.

“One of the reasons the early Black community is forgotten is that by the 1920s these families moved away,” Krueger says.

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The community saw the number of African Americans decline as many sought work in factories of larger metro areas like Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit. That trend started to change back in the 1960s thanks to hiring and recruitment of students and faculty at area universities, including husband-and-wife educators James and Yvonne Condell at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Students like activist Carl Griffin, who would become The Forum’s first Black reporter, also worked to bring in more African American students at MSUM.

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Yvonne Condell taught biology at Minnesota State University Moorhead for 30 years and has been an advocate for the arts.
Contributed / Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County

Over the last 30 years, the number of African Americans here has risen dramatically in large part to immigration from African countries, with the most recent census showing about 8% of Cass County identify as African American.

The show ends with the 2018 election of Jonathan Judd as the first Black mayor of Moorhead and Rachel Stone to the Moorhead School Board and asks visitors how the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police offers and the ensuing racial reckoning should and will be remembered.

“That’s one of the things we wanted to show with this exhibit. We have a reputation for being a white, monocultural community and that’s never been true. We’re trying to push back on that stereotype,” Krueger says. “A lot of people see us as a Norwegian museum. We need to make sure we have something in this museum that pertains to everybody, to tell stories that haven’t been told before. We’re always interested in digging deeper for the stories we don’t know yet.”

He adds that a group of Black West Fargo students who recently visited were interested in the show.

Clavo says for Black people living here today, seeing how the Black community of yesterday helped shape the community gives them a feeling of belonging and empowerment.

“Representation matters,” Clavo says. “Seeing people that look like you doing great things, it motivates you to do the same.”

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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