On July 1, 2019, the U.S. Census estimated the population of Rochester at 118,935, of which 80.3 percent are white (75.8 percent non-Latino white and 5.9 percent Hispanic or Latino); 7.8 percent are Black or African American; 7.2 percent are Asian; 3.1 percent are two or more races; 0.4 percent are American Indian and Alaska Native; and 0.1 percent are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

During most of the history of Rochester, the Black population was much smaller. In 1860 and 1870, the census showed the population of Olmsted County increasing from 9,524 to 19,766. The then-named “Colored” population increased from 0 to 27, with no “Indians” either year.

ALSO READ: George Thompson leads the 'Trendsetters'

The only mentions of Black people in Leonard’s 1910 History of Olmsted County are the death of Taylor Combs at the state hospital in 1898 and the 1871 murder of James Willis, a 19-year-old barber’s apprentice. Willis, who was Black, had an argument over pay with a barber named Henry Stevens, who was white. A fight ensued in which Willis beat Stevens. Shortly after, Stevens borrowed a revolver from an acquaintance, sought out Willis and provoked another argument. Stevens shot Willis three times, killing him. He was tried and convicted of second-degree manslaughter and served four years and three months in prison.

From their beginnings, St. Marys Hospital, Methodist Hospital and Mayo Clinic offered care without regard to race, and Black patients received medical care, but no Rochester hotel and very few rooming houses were willing to provide them accommodations.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Verne Manning visited Rochester with his wife for medical care in 1944 and had difficulty finding accommodations. In response, the Mannings bought the former Northwestern Hotel at 301 North Broadway. They renamed it the Avalon Hotel. Built in 1919, it had housed and fed visiting Jewish clients under the ownership of Sam and Lena Sternberg. The Avalon served clients without regard to race—the only hotel in town that did so.

The Mannings were the first Black business owners and one of only six Black families in Rochester at the time. Exclusion of Blacks by all other hotels continued until it was legally prohibited in the mid-1950s, despite a 1947 Governor’s Interracial Commission of Minnesota that publicly described the policies of Rochester hotels as an embarrassment to the whole state.

During those years, Avalon hotel guests included Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, world boxing champ Henry Armstrong and the Ink Spots.

Mayor Claude H. “Bony” McQuillan (1947–51 and 1953–57) was a former professional football player and light heavyweight boxer. He was a physically imposing individual and was very popular. He was not known to be particularly progressive, socially or politically, in the pre–civil rights era. However, one day he reportedly walked by a bar on Third Street Northwest, on the north side of Central Park, and noticed a sign in the front window: “No N——s Allowed.” He found it offensive.

He entered the bar and asked for the owner. When the owner met him, after exchanging greetings, he told the owner that he did not like the sign and asked him to remove it. The owner declined. McQuillan then told the owner, “I’ll give you a choice. You can take it down right now or I’ll break your nose right now.”

The owner then complied promptly with his request. (Apocryphal story told to me by Walter Bateman and subsequently reported in the Post Bulletin by Mike Dougherty.)

Among my earliest memories as a preschooler growing up in Rochester is learning a racist version of Eeny-meeny-miny-moe and subsequently being told that the N-word was pejorative.

The first civil rights march held in Rochester was in August 1963. It included 38 Rochester residents. They marched from Silver Lake Park to Soldiers Field Park. They were heckled and pelted with eggs by onlookers. That evening, a burning cross was placed in front of the Avalon Hotel by two 18-year-olds who were apprehended and fined. A subsequent editorial in the Post Bulletin stated in capital letters: “Let’s Have No More Civil Rights Marches In Rochester.”

In the 1960s, IBM was the first major business in town to recruit a more diverse workforce by hiring a small number of Black employees. Most lived in the northwest quadrant of the city, near the IBM plant. For that reason, their children attended John Marshall High School. I lived in southwest Rochester, so I attended Mayo High School. I was in the fifth class to graduate from the new school in 1971. There were over four hundred graduates per class. It was not until my class that the first Black student graduated from Mayo High School.

As Rochester has grown over the years, it has become somewhat more diverse. Toward that end, there has been some acknowledgement of Black heroes. The former East Park on East Center Street was renamed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2019.

George W. Gibbs Jr. Boulevard in Soldiers Field Park and George W. Gibbs Jr. Elementary School were both named in honor of George W. Gibbs Jr. in 2002 and 2008, respectively.

Gibbs served in the U.S. Navy for twenty-four years, including duty as a gunner onboard a ship during World War II. In 1940, he served as a member of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s third expedition to Antarctica, becoming the first Black person to set foot on Antarctica. Gibbs Point, located in Marguerite Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula, is named in his honor.

George Gibbs at Antarctica in 1941. (Courtesy of Leilani Henry)
George Gibbs at Antarctica in 1941. (Courtesy of Leilani Henry)

He retired in 1959 as a chief petty officer. After earning a Bachelor of Science in education, Gibbs worked in the personnel department of IBM in Rochester from 1963 to 1982. In 1966, he was a founding member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After initially being rejected for membership in the Elks Club in Rochester, he integrated the club in 1974.

He later served as president of the Rochester Kiwanis and the Rochester chapter of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association. After retiring from IBM, he founded an employment agency that he operated until 1999. He died on November 7, 2000, at the age of eighty-four and was survived by his wife, Joyce; two children; and one grandchild. ...

Over the past 40 to 50 years, the demographics of Rochester and Mayo Clinic have changed very substantially. Mayo Clinic changed from being a virtual white enclave when I started employment in 1984 to now having an international staff and receiving awards for diversity and inclusion. There is still progress to be made at Mayo Clinic and in Rochester as a community.

Recent interest in Rochester focused on the Black Lives Matter campaign raises important questions that society as a whole and Rochester as a community need to deal with more effectively, strategically, humanely, and generously. Mayo Clinic has made a substantial financial commitment to do so, and others in the community have spoken of the need to do likewise.