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1898-1954: Hastings’ black residents pursued their dreams

Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final story in a series setting the stage for a community forum that area ministers are planning for Feb. 24 at Hastings High School. Find the rest of the series here.

1898 was the last year Hastings students attended Irving High School and the first year of their organized football team. It must have been an exciting year when the team ended the season as champions.

They lost their first game to Central High 0-35, but won all five of their other games without giving up a point.  The fifth game Hastings 35, River Falls 0.  

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In reporting the results, the River Falls Journal stated, “Hastings made but slow gains through the Falls line, and were frequently stopped for loss when they tried it. But their end runs seldom failed to make from four to forty yards. Their interference was superb and massive. Their play was quick and accurate. Their training and team work were magnificent. The players were gentlemen, and the game was clean and good throughout.”  

A team photo of the players that season shows one colored player, Thomas Willis, among the proud team members.

Thomas’s mother, Louise, had moved back to Illinois following her husband’s death in 1896, so it is unlikely that she and her daughters, Lucinda and Anna, were there to cheer for Thomas and the team. It is very likely though, that the Wallace and Curry families were in the stands.

It may have been Thomas who inspired their young sons to play football when they were in high school. In 1910, Robert Wallace was on the football team photo as a player and Paul Curry as the coach. There can be little doubt that the James and Ellen Wallace family and the James and Ella Curry family attended with pride. Ten years later, the youngest Curry son, William, also played football at Central High.

Nine of the 10 Curry children graduated from Central High School.

Georgianna graduated in 1901 and then attended Brown’s Business college in Northfield. Mary graduated in 1903, Howard was one of only four males in the 1905 class of 29 graduates and Florence was valedictorian in 1906. She attended Hampton Normal Institute in Hampton, Va, took a postgraduate course in library work at Tuskegee Institute at Tuskegee, Al., and then returned to Virginia where she was assistant librarian at the Hampton Institute. The remaining Curry siblings graduated thus: Charles, 1907; Paul, 1911; Virginia, 1913; Murlin, 1919 and William 1921.

At least three Curry family marriages took place in their home on Fourth Street.  Georgiana, married John W. Collins from Minneapolis in October 1909. Attendants Mary, sister to bride, and Jacob, brother of groom, married each other in June 1911, also at the family home.  Murlin was married in 1922 at the Methodist parsonage followed by a six o’clock dinner at the Curry home.

Georgiana and John Collins lived in Minneapolis following their marriage and Mary boarded at their home and worked as a physician attendant until her marriage. By 1920 William was the only child living with James and Ella in Hastings.

Charles, Gilbert and Paul all joined the service in August 1918 and served in the 809th Infantry during World War I. Charles as a private in the AEF, Gilbert served overseas as a musician in Company E. and Paul as a sergeant in Company E, AEF.  Following their discharges, they returned to Minneapolis.

1920 census

The Wallace family was missing from the 1920 Hastings census for the first time in 50 years.

James Wallace, 52, John and Nancy Wallace’s son, died June 23,1915, from heart trouble. Ellen then moved to Minneapolis to be near her children. Daughter Julia, who graduated from Central High School in 1911 and married in 1914, provided a home for her mother and brother George.  Robert and his wife, Rhoda, were also living in Minneapolis and his brother James was their boarder.

In 1919 on June 28th, Nancy Wallace died at the age of 84 years.

The black population on Fourth Street now consisted of William and Elizabeth Douglas and James and Ella Curry. Though the Curry children had moved away from Hastings, they were frequent visitors with their own growing families. When her daughter-in-law Hazel gave birth to triplets in August 1927, Ella went to Minneapolis to help care for the new babies and their older brother and sister. The triplets were only a year old when another daughter was born.

Ella and James celebrated their golden wedding in 1932 with a family reunion at their home on the corner of Fourth and Vermillion streets.

On Nov. 24,1933, James died. He had been working as the public school janitor for 15 years and was admired by many.

All the Hastings newspapers carried articles about his life and death. Downtown businesses closed for his funeral and the Methodist church was packed.

Tribute to James Curry

Larry Ho, who grew up in Hastings, served two terms as mayor of St. Paul and wrote for the St. Paul Dispatch, paid tribute to him in his column:,

“One of the best friends of my childhood days — James Curry of Hastings is dead. This splendid colored man who was raised in the atmosphere of slavery,  sang his gallant way through life. ‘.. I am proud that so splendid a man loved me truly. I reverence, I salute his memory and in reverence I tell this one incident of his glad and smiling life.

“One night he sang a song at the Hastings opera house at a church benefit. In the midst of his song the electric lights went out. Jim laughed and called out, ‘Cheer up folks, we are all the same color now’

No, Jim old pal, unfortunately we are not all the same color, though we should be. You were radiant gold all through while most of us are a drab yellow. I’d like to throw a rose to you Jim, but across the distance all I can throw is my heart — no less loving in this hour of our parting than on that first day 50 years ago, when you first held me on your lap.”

Ella remained in Hastings for a year before moving to Minneapolis to live with daughter Murlin; she died in Oct. 8, 1943. James and Ella are both buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

William ‘Henry’ Douglas

Jan. 26,1934, William Douglas died at the age of 68. The headline for his obituary read “Former Mail Carrier Dies — William Douglas, Colored Resident Interred Wednesday.”  He was also buried at Lakeside.

On Jan. 22, 1954, The Hastings Gazette carried this obituary:

“Henry Thomas, 74, this city’s only Negro resident, died of a heart attack here at 1:20 p.m. Monday.

“Funeral services for Mr. Thomas, who has made his home here for some 23 years, will be held at the Guardian Angels church at 9 o’clock this morning (Friday) with the Rev. Ferguson officiating. Interment will be in the Guardian Angels cemetery.

Except for his birth date, January 2, 1879, details of Mr. Thomas’ life before he moved to Hastings are almost entirely lacking, although it is known that he worked in a St. Paul hotel at one time.

“‘Henry,’ as he was known to his many friends here, was not given to talking about himself. He was noted for a dry sense of humor, a broad grin and a delight in spinning yarns which left his listeners wondering if Henry was ‘pulling their leg.’ ...

“Henry Thomas was a man whose wants were few. But his accomplishments were great in the sense that he knew no ill will here.  Henry will be greatly missed by Hastings residents.”

Some 97 years spanned the period of time between Robert Burns and Henry Thomas in Hastings. During that time, members of the black community had fought for their freedom and then their rights as citizens, had celebrated the victory of obtaining those rights and joined together in learning more about becoming good citizens.

They dreamt of and organized their own church to worship God according to their consciences without shame or fear, only to have it destroyed by arsons.

They watched their children attend and excel in scholarship and sports. Many worked, died and were buried in Hastings, but their children chose to pursue their own dreams where there were more opportunities for themselves and their children.

Sources for this series:

Pioneer Room files

“Peculiar Imbalance” William Green

“Minnesota: A History of the State.” Theodore C. Blegen

Heidi Langenfeld ia a volunteer researcher at LeDuc and the Pioneer Room.