Learning from the past

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February is Black History Month. The month was first recognized in 1976 as a way to honor the accomplishments of African Americans throughout U.S. history. Today, one Hastings woman is looking back on the history of African Americans in the Hastings community.

Heidi Langenfeld works in the Pioneer Room at City Hall. She recently researched the timeline of African Americans in Hastings from 1857, when Hastings became an incorporated city, to 1954.

"I feel like history is there for us to learn from it and to build on and to not be castigating guilt or to be pointing at ourselves ... but try to look at it from the perspective of learning from our past," Langenfeld said.

One significant trend that Langenfeld found in her research was the steady growth in the population of blacks in the community during the late 1800s, and then a slow decline of the black population in the 1900s. In the Jan. 22, 1954 issue of the Hastings Gazette, it was reported that the last known black citizen in Hastings died.

One of the main things that Langenfeld thought drove away the black population was the ridicule that they received in newspaper articles and actions. In 1865, a bill that proposed an amendment to strike the word "white" from the suffrage provision was passed. However, the amendment was twice voted down in 1865 and 1867.

One example of an unwelcome feeling toward African Americans in Hastings comes from 1907. A fire was reported at the African Methodist Church and the fire department had to put it out. An investigation resulted in finding indications of kerosene poured over the floor, pews and elsewhere, implying that it was not an accident.

Although there was ridicule, there were also African Americans in the city who made a big impact. One major example is James Curry. All the newspapers had long articles about his life and death in 1933. Curry had worked as a janitor at the Hastings public school for 15 years. The church was packed at his funeral and the downtown businesses were also closed. In a tribute written in the St. Paul Dispatch, Larry Ho wrote about how Curry sang his gallant way through life. Ho wrote of a story he remembered when Curry sang a song at the Hastings opera house at a church benefit. In the middle of his song, the lights went out and Curry laughed and called out, "cheer up folks, we are all the same color now."

More recently, Hastings has seen a rise in the number of African Americans in the city. According to the United States Census Bureau American FactFinder, the population of African Americans in Hastings has steadily increased in the last several years. In 2009 there was an estimated 57 African Americans in the city and in 2015 that number rose to an estimated 346 citizens.

Langenfeld said that it is her hope that society has grown enough through the years that the community would now be a better welcoming place for people who are from different backgrounds, religion and race.