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Beyond Calhoun: How does Minnesota honor other dead racists?

Alexander Ramsey, second governor of Minnesota, wanted to exterminate Native Americans.

Alexander Ramsey, second governor of Minnesota, wanted to exterminate Native Americans.

What’s in a name? Well, if a guy was a huge fan of slavery, emphatically defending that peculiar institution as a “positive good” on the Senate floor, Minnesotans are gonna balk at the thought of spending their golden summers paddling around a lake named in his honor. Thus after much Parks and Recs wrangling and a guerilla-style makeover of Lake Calhoun’s signs this summer, it’s finally got a name change: Bde Maka Ska, or Lake White Earth.

Justice prevails, sort of.

Purging John Calhoun’s legacy is only the latest campaign by well-meaning liberals to restore some dignity to people trampled throughout history by these old-timey folks we once considered founding fathers.

Last spring Minneapolis officially ditched Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though debate rages on over whether to simply re-engrave the Columbus statue guarding the State Capitol or topple it entirely. Minnesota’s state flag has also come under fire for its depiction of a white farmer working in the foreground while a Native American charges by on a horse, wearing a loincloth and holding a spear. Not much has been done about that, mostly because the flag is hideous and no one flies it anyway.

But in the quest to eradicate reminders of Minnesota’s racist history, shouldn’t something be done about all the stuff named Ramsey? Alexander Ramsey, the second governor of Minnesota, was a staunch anti-slavery governor during the Civil War. But he also hated the Dakota people, called for their extermination, and offered money for their scalps. For all this, he got a couple counties, a couple cities, a few schools, and at least one park named after him.

Another guy who was at least much wilier about preserving slavery was U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas. In 1854 Douglas, who was from Illinois, struck a deal with southern lawmakers to carve a railroad from his home state to California. In return he found a loophole in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which banned slavery west of Missouri, and essentially reintroduced slaves to the western frontier. Douglas County in Minnesota commemorates him.

Then there’s Calvin Griffith, the original Minnesota Twins owner. The guy didn’t actually have any power over public policy, but with hallowed separation of sports and state aside, he was kind of the Donald Sterling of his day. Griffith made some jaws drop back in 1978 when he explained why he moved the Washington Senators to Minnesota, where they became the Twins.

“It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here," he told the Lions Club in Waseca. "Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.” Awkward that his statue continues to welcome baseball lovers and players of all colors to Target Field.