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Black Life in Two Pandemics: Histories of Violence

Black Life In Two Pandemics - Histories of Violence

George Floyd’s Memorial Day 2020 killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin shook the nation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the viral video documenting him being choked for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while in police custody laid bare the reality of Black life amid a global health crisis. In the wake of Floyd’s death, thousands of people rose up in Minneapolis, in the Midwest, across the United States, and eventually around the world to protest police brutality, but also something larger: the structural inequality that landed George Floyd and others in a premature grave. 

This special series of blog posts curated by Dr. Modupe Labode, Dr. Crystal Moten, and Tsione Wolde-Michael (all of whom are Black Midwesterners) considers the long history of racial violence in the Midwest and its connections to the current public health crisis and structural racism today. We have invited guest scholars to write posts that center the lives and histories of Black people in the Midwest and help us understand how the past has shaped the present moment in which we find ourselves. At its core, this series attempts to unpack the question on many Americans minds: why has the Midwest become a tipping point?

The answers our authors explore go back as far as the 1800s. Their research upends the prevailing narrative about the Midwest as a racially progressive place by documenting the long history of white resistance, retaliation, and aggression directed against Black Midwesterners and Indigenous peoples. These pieces raise questions about the erasure of that history and highlight the targeted violence perpetuated against Black Midwesterners by local and state officials as well as everyday citizens.

Of course, these posts do not tell the complete history of Black life in the Midwest—that history is filled with everyday narratives of Black joy and Black celebration, as well. But in this time of two pandemics—COVID-19 and structural racism—there is an urgency to contextualize our present moment through history.


The first post in the series, “Many Tulsa Massacres,” by Drs. Christy Clark-Pujara and Anna-Lisa Cox, lays a foundation for the posts that follow.  It dispels the myths that there were few African Americans in the Midwest before the Great Migration (1915–1940) and that white mob violence against Black people was restricted to the South.

Dr. Ashley Howard’s “A Watched Pot Never Boils” uncovers similarities and differences among urban Black uprisings in the late 1900s, documenting the persistence of anti-Black violence over time and space. Howard critically examines the ways in which media coverage of these events has often distanced our country from its past, and she directs readers’ attention toward the central role policing has played in causing past and present uprisings nationwide.

Where Two Waters Come Together” by Dr. Katrina Phillips shows the intertwined history of Black and Indigenous people in the Midwest by considering the experiences of these two groups in Minneapolis/St. Paul at historic Fort Snelling.  Unpacking the history of a site that was at once a concentration camp for Dakota people and a place where enslaved Black people labored, Phillips explores the connections between Black and Indigenous people, then and now.

Co-written by undergraduate students and professors, “Art and Uprising” by Chioma Uwagwu, Tiaryn Daniels, and Dr. David Todd Lawrence tells the story of the development of the George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art digital project at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. The post illuminates the importance of preserving the street art that flowered in the Twin Cities and across the nation as a primary source record for understanding people’s responses to George Floyd’s killing during COVID-19.

Finally, “COVID-19, Police Violence, and the Thread that Binds Them” (available Thursday, August 27) by Mahader Tamene, Elleni Hailu, Rachel Berkowitz, and Xing Gao adds a public health perspective to the series. The authors’ analysis of public health data offers a critique of structural racism as a public health issue. The post makes the important point that the same structural racism that enables police violence against communities of color is equally responsible for the increased toll COVID-19 continues to take in these same communities.

As these blog posts are released, we invite you to reflect on these stories and draw connections to little-known histories in your community and indeed our country during this pivotal and historic time.

Modupe Labode is a curator in the Divisions of Culture and Community Life and Political and Military History. She has lived in several places in the Midwest, including Indiana, where she taught history and museum studies for twelve years. Her areas of research include representation of African Americans at museums and public history sites, Black public art, and African American history in the Midwest and West.

Crystal Moten is curator of African American history in the Division of Work and Industry. A south side of Chicago native, she has taught at small liberal arts colleges on the east coast and in the upper Midwest. Her research interests include the intersectional connections between African American labor, business, and civil rights history with emphasis on post-World War II Black freedom movements in the urban Midwest.

Tsione Wolde-Michael is a curator in the Division of Political and Military History. She was born and raised in the Twin Cities, which fostered her love for history, museums, and art. Her work focuses on innovative approaches to community engagement, collections management, cultural heritage, and exhibitions including the landmark Slavery and Freedom show at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her current projects include a special joint Smithsonian-wide initiative to document the history of the Black Lives Matter movement.