In the Burroughs | Children's Minnesota | The Kid Experts

Black history is American history. Meet my heroes.

When I was a kid growing up in Detroit, I searched for heroes to look up to. I looked in comic books. I looked in history books. Heroes who looked like me were hard to find. And sometimes history book heroes aren’t heroes at all. Some of them actively worked against people who look like me, enforcing racist policies that led to lynchings and death. 

Today, some politicians are actively working to stop kids from learning about their history and heroes who look like them. This is not Critical Race Theory. This is not white privilege. This is American history and the story must be told. In some Minnesota school districts like Minneapolis Public Schools, Ethnic Studies offers a more inclusive look at history and values all heroes.  

History is about learning, and kids must learn their history. As the kid experts, we want to make sure that history is inclusive and values all kids and families. So, I want to introduce you to three Minnesota heroes that our children, and people of all ages, should know. This is American history. 

Roy Wilkins

Lots of people know of Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, but don’t know anything about the man behind the name. Roy Wilkins grew up in St. Paul and went on to become an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

Wilkins is also my fraternity brother. In 1921, he helped found the Omega Psi Phi chapter (XI) at the University of Minnesota. Omega Psi Phi was the first Black fraternity to have a picture in the yearbook. Wilkins was also the first Black student reporter for the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. 

Wilkins worked for the NAACP for more than 40 years. He helped accomplish major victories: the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. 

Roy Wilkins was a hero. Roy Wilkins is American history. 

Roy Wilkins (center) with Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall, 1959.

Nellie Griswold Francis

Griswold’s Central High School graduation photo, 1891.

While Roy Wilkins was breaking ground at the University of Minnesota, Nellie Griswold Francis was breaking ground at the state capitol. Francis was an activist who helped pass Minnesota’s anti-lynching law.  

In Duluth in 1920, a white woman falsely accused three Black circus workers, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, of rape. That night a mob broke into their jail cells and lynched Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. No one in the mob was convicted of murder. The very next year, Francis helped draft and pass a law that outlawed lynching in Minnesota. She’s considered the first Black woman to lobby the Minnesota legislature.  

A few years later, when Francis and her husband were getting ready to buy a house in a white part of St. Paul, neighbors burned a cross on their lawn. Francis and her husband moved in anyway. 

Nellie Griswold Francis was a hero. Nellie Griswold Francis is American history. 

Rose Mary Freeman 

About 50 years after Roy Wilkins graduated from the University of Minnesota, a young Black woman named Rose Mary Freeman was a student there. At that time, Black students weren’t allowed to live in the dorms or join some campus groups. There were no classes about African American history. Freeman and other Black students brought their concerns to the university, but nothing changed. 

In early 1969, Freeman helped lead a student takeover of Morrill Hall on campus. The occupation lasted about 24 hours, and led to significant changes for Black students. The university created scholarships for Black students. It also established an African American studies program; one of the first in the country.  

Rosemary Freeman was a hero. Rosemary Freeman is American history. 

Rose Mary Freeman knew the importance of learning about the history and the people who paved the way for her. She became one of those people, as did Roy Wilkins and Nellie Griswold Francis. So let’s remember their names, their stories, their bravery and carry all of it with us into the future.

Rose Mary Freeman and Horace Huntley inside Morrill Hall, 1969.
James Burroughs

James Burroughs
Senior vice president, government and community relations, chief equity and inclusion officer

James Burroughs is the senior vice president, government and community relations, chief equity and inclusion officer at Children's Minnesota. He is responsible for advancing equity and inclusion in all parts of the organization.
Follow James on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Julianna Olsen