Histories of the Civil War and the mid-19th century mineral rush abound. But what happened shortly thereafter, when newly freed African Americans sought better lives across the U.S., is a story largely resigned to family albums and local historical societies like the one in Fergus Falls, Minn. There, a collection of newspaper clippings and photographs, many donated by a woman named Lorraine Tate, tell the story of the “First 85,” 60 men and boys and 25 women and girls who migrated from Kentucky on April 7, 1898.
According to an article published in the Fergus Falls Journal in 1933, the group of pioneers was the largest influx of African Americans to settle in a Western state. In Fergus Falls, they set up businesses and homes and raised families for generations. Descendants gathered on Aug. 11 to honor their ancestors’ bold move.
But how did a trainload of African Americans end up in Fergus Falls? A 2007 documentary by Twin Cities Public Television sought to explain.
“There were veterans in Fergus Falls and they got a bright idea that they would take real estate brochures down to this event [the Grand Army of the Republic's annual encampment in St. Paul in 1896] and see who they could draw up to Otter Tail County,” said Melissa Hermes, education coordinator for the Otter Tail County Historical Society. The pitch apparently appealed to the Army’s African American troop, prompting them to pack up their families and move northwest…
Read more: Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson, Huffington Post