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The 1860 Eliza Winston court case illustrates Minnesota’s complicated racial politics

On the one hand, cities such as Minneapolis and St. Anthony were centers of the Midwest’s abolition movement. Yet, many white Minnesota businessmen benefited from trade with Southern slaveholders.

Winslow Hotel, St. Anthony, c.1865. Visitors playing croquet. Until 1860, the Winslow Hotel was popular among vacationing Southerns who brought the enslaved people they owned with them. Eliza Winston came to the Winslow Hotel with her owner, Richard Christmas, and his family.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On August 21, 1860, enslaved African American Eliza Winston was freed from her Mississippi owner in a Minneapolis court. After being granted legal freedom, however, Winston faced white mob violence and was forced to leave the area. The event showed that although slavery was illegal in Minnesota, many white Minnesotans supported the practice when it economically benefited them.

Eliza Winston was thirty years old in 1860, and she had been close to freedom once before. Her husband, Jim Winston, was a free man of color who planned to buy Winston’s freedom from her owner at the time. But Jim died during a trip to Liberia, and she was pawned or sold to Mississippian Richard Christmas.

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In the summer of 1860, Eliza Winston traveled to St. Anthony when Christmas, his wife, Mary, and their young daughter went on vacation. Christmas brought Winston along so she could care for the daughter and for Mary, who was ill. Like many vacationing Southern slaveholders, they roomed at the Winslow House.

Although slavery was legal in Southern states, Minnesota banned the practice in its first state constitution of 1857. That might not have been enough to grant Winston her freedom, however. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling a few months earlier, an enslaved person could not become free simply because he or she lived in a state that banned slavery. Fortunately for Winston, Northern judges usually ignored the Dred Scott decision. If the circumstances were right, Winston had a chance of being freed.

While Winston was in St. Anthony, she met Emily and Ralph Grey, a free African American couple. The Greys were respected community members and abolitionists with ties to powerful local figures. They introduced Winston to notable local anti-slavery leaders, including W.D. Babbitt, Ariel S. Bigelow, and William S. King, later founder of Northrup, King and Company.

On August 21, Emily Grey, Babbitt, and Grey’s white friend Mrs. Gates filed a legal complaint asserting that Winston was being “restrained of her liberty by her master.” By this time, the Christmases and Winston had moved from the Winslow House to a cottage on Lake Harriet, in Minneapolis. The Hennepin County sheriff was sent there. A rowdy crowd of abolitionists accompanied the sheriff.

When the sheriff arrived, Mary Christmas ordered Winston to flee. Winston stayed put, however, telling the sheriff she wished to be legally granted her freedom. The sheriff decided to escort her and Richard Christmas directly to the courthouse, where a judge could rule on the matter.

The scene outside the courthouse was a volatile one. The Hennepin County Courthouse was just across the river from St. Anthony, within view of the Winslow House, so many people in the area had an economic interest in slavery. If the court freed Winston, future slaveholders would be less likely to visit the area. With that in mind, local businessmen sent laborers and ruffians to the courthouse to create a ruckus.

In court, Winston testified that she wanted to be free so she could move to Memphis, work as a nurse, and remarry. The judge, Charles E. Vanderburgh, was an abolitionist. He ruled in Winston’s favor. Christmas accepted the decision without complaint. He knew that despite the presence of pro-slavery mobs outside the courthouse, it was the abolitionists in the area who held political power.

The courtroom scene became chaotic, and a crowd outside protested Vanderburgh’s decision. Winston’s life was in danger, so Babbitt helped her escape to his home. That evening, a threatening gang of pro-slavery agitators surrounded the house. By then, however, Winston had disappeared.

The Winston case revealed several contradictions in Minnesota’s racial politics. On the one hand, the state constitution forbade slavery, and cities such as Minneapolis and St. Anthony were centers of the Midwest’s abolition movement. On the other hand, many white Minnesota businessmen benefited from trade with Southern slaveholders, and white Minnesotans could be quick to form racial mobs.

As local business owners had feared, the Winston case did slow Southern tourism to Minnesota. This was only a problem for several months, however. Southern states began leaving the Union in December 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War erupted the following April.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.