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'So many stories to tell': Minneapolis Sound luminaries trace their roots to historic Fergus Falls black community

Andre Cymone's father and grandparents lived in Fergus Falls, Minn.
Andre Cymone's father and grandparents lived in Fergus Falls, Minn.Nate Ryan | MPR

by Luke Taylor

June 19, 2018

"Fergus Falls!" Piano legend Cornbread Harris lights up at the mention of the name. "My grandmother lived there. The family lived there for years!"

On this Juneteenth, there's good reason to shed light on Fergus Falls, a northern Minnesota city with a population of more than 13,000 and the seat of Otter Tail County. Fergus Falls has a rich genealogy of African Americans — Cornbread Harris, although born in Chicago, traces his roots to Fergus Falls, as did Kansas-born photojournalist and film director Gordon Parks. And at least two pioneers of the Minneapolis Sound also have ties to Fergus Falls — notably, music luminaries Jimmy Jam Harris (whose father is Cornbread Harris and mother is Bertha Tate Webster Harris) and André Cymone. "There's an interesting confluence of all sorts of stuff in Fergus," says Cymone, whose father, Fred L. Anderson, was born and raised in Fergus Falls.

Digging deeper into André Cymone's own history reveals that the connection between the Minneapolis Sound and Fergus Falls is further tied to an epic struggle for freedom at the heart of American history.

To understand a bit more about the African American community in Fergus Falls, we have to begin with a man named Prince — no, not the Prince (the ancestors of Prince Rogers Nelson migrated to Minneapolis from Louisiana). In the context of Fergus Falls, we're talking about Prince Honeycutt. "He was African American, and he arrived in 1872," explains Missy Hermes of the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

According to Hermes, Honeycutt was born into slavery near Pulaski, Tenn., in Giles County, which is in the south-central portion of Tennessee. Hermes explains that when Union troops occupied Giles County during the Civil War, Honeycutt "left home with his mother's blessing and attached himself to a unit from Illinois. The captain of that unit was named James Compton. Prince actually stayed with that unit from the time he was 10 years old until the end of the war."

Apparently Honeycutt had wanted to be a drummer boy, but at age 10, was too young for a role that would have brought him into combat. Rather, Honeycutt worked in the camp, assisting the soldiers with meals and other daily tasks. Hermes says it was common for former slaves to attach themselves to the Union army — it was a symbiosis that provided protection for former slaves while giving the Union an economic tool against the Confederacy; i.e. by taking away slave labor.

After the Civil War, Honeycutt briefly returned home to Tennessee, but found a hostile environment. On foot, Honeycutt made his way to Chicago, where he located Capt. James Compton, now a civilian working in the banking industry. Compton took Honeycutt under his wing, and when the banking business necessitated Compton's move from Chicago to Fergus Falls, Honeycutt moved, too.

Honeycutt didn't follow Compton into banking, but rather became a barber and a volunteer firefighter. Honeycutt also established one of the first baseball teams in Otter Tail County, and even once ran — albeit unsuccessfully — for mayor of Fergus Falls. In short, the life story of Prince Honeycutt is fascinating. "I love talking about him," Hermes says. "I want everybody to know about Prince Honeycutt."

The life of Honeycutt is also relevant to the lineage of André Cymone, which we'll see later.

André Cymone knows his forebears lived somewhere else before Fergus Falls. Cymone's ancestors — the Wagners and the Andersons — were part of a group of African American settlers dubbed "The First 85" who migrated from Kentucky to Minnesota in 1898. "They went to Fergus Falls in what was a massive influx of African Americans, I guess about 65 adults and 20 children, about 18 families from Kentucky.

"They wanted to get out of Kentucky," Cymone continues. "Obviously for the blacks in Kentucky, it was the end of slavery. So with all the beat-downs and other stuff, they wanted to run and get away from that. They were looking forward to getting out of there and experiencing a new life."

Louise Jones is the director of research experience at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Ky. Digging into the U.S. Census records of 1880, she finds the family of Cymone's grandmother, Mattie Wagner, living in a part of Adair County called Cane Valley, which, as Jones explains, is not far from the Tennessee border. In the census of the same year, in neighboring Green County, Jones locates the Andersons — William and Catherine with their children Simon, Margaret Lee and Rosa, all under age five, in a town named Grove. The young Simon Anderson is Cymone's grandfather (Cymone's birthname is André Simon Anderson; his professional name is an adaptation of Simon).

Jones says the town of Grove no longer exists on maps of Green County, Kentucky. The nearest city is Greensburg, and Jones theorizes Grove may have been a temporary settlement. "They were called 'free towns'," Jones says of places like Grove. "They pop up after the Civil War as African Americans come together to give themselves some sense of community, because they kind of have to create that from scratch once they got their freedom from slavery. Some of these free towns existed for one or two generations, and they disappear because the community become assimilated into whatever area it's in, sometimes a larger city."

Or in the case of Grove, it may have evaporated once its residents picked up and moved to Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

But what specifically brought them to Fergus Falls?

André Cymone describes a legend that persisted in his family growing up. "From what I understood, from what I was told when I was a kid, [our ancestors] had kind of left a trail of people trying to keep them in a slave situation and they revolted and left and then they got captured by families that tried to make them slaves again, and then they revolted and ran and kept running until they finally got away and got out of there," he says. "And the revolt, from what I understand, was a 'do whatever we have to do to get out of this situation because we don't want to be slaves.'"

Jones, from the Kentucky Historical Society, says there is likely much truth to the legend. "Because Kentucky was not part of the Confederacy, it wasn't until the 13th Amendment was ratified that slavery ended in Kentucky," she explains. "So there is that slight delay; it's not an automatic thing. So it's not until the end of 1865 that you actually see slavery end in Kentucky. But you also have the fact that because Kentucky was not necessarily part of the Confederacy, it took almost a decade for the Freedmen's Bureau to open up in Kentucky. The Freedmen's Bureau was formed as part of Reconstruction to help the African American population come to independence, and you don't have that happening in Kentucky. So you have a population that was held in slavery, but because of the politics that were going on, the aftermath is not as neat and cut and dried."

It was their fight for freedom that led to the First 85's enticement from Kentucky to Fergus Falls in the first place. "In the mid 1890s there was a national convention of Grand Army of the Republic — that is, Civil War veterans — in St. Paul," explains Otter Tail County Historical Society's Missy Hermes. "The powers that be in Fergus Falls were themselves Civil War veterans … some of them took real estate brochures with them. Whether it worked with other veterans, I don't know, but they found an open ear from some of the African American Kentuckians who were veterans, who went back to Kentucky, talked about that it looked good here in Fergus Falls, and so that's how, en masse, that group came on the train to Fergus Falls."

Leslie Jones from the Kentucky Historical Society corroborates the story. The U.S. Army, which remained segregated along race lines up through World War II, had a branch in the Civil War called (in the language of the 1860s) the "U.S. Colored Troops" or U.S.C.T., composed of both free black men and former slaves. "So if you were part of the U.S.C.T. or part of the white Union forces, after the war, your veterans group was the Grand Army of the Republic or G.A.R.," Jones says. "They would routinely get together for gatherings in Louisville, a few in Lexington, but Louisville was the big place."

It was from Louisville, Ky., that the First 85 departed by train for Fergus Falls, Minnesota. An article from the Louisville Courier Journal dated April 5, 1898, documents the group's departure, naming the four U.S.C.T. members who originally scouted Fergus Falls as "J.H. Lewis, Al Penick, Gaines Strater and Frank A. Marshall, all G.A.R. veterans."

Jones was able to locate documents that record Penick's military service. "I love the Grand Army of the Republic connection," Jones adds, "the fact that theoretically most of the men of a certain age would have been Civil War veterans."

Documenting the lives of African Americans prior to the year 1870 is challenging (inquiries from The Current to PBS Finding Your Roots host, Professor Henry Louis Gates, and to Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research did not receive responses), but the legend in André Cymone's family — that his ancestors fought for their freedom — is entirely plausible, whether they fought tooth and nail as part of a revolt or as part of the Union Army. And although Cymone's great-great grandfather may have been too young to be a soldier in the Civil War, we need only recall the story of Prince Honeycutt; Cymone's forebears may well have attached themselves to a Union Army unit in a similar manner.

And speaking of Honeycutt, when the First 85 were on their way to Fergus Falls from Kentucky, the community of Fergus Falls commissioned Honeycutt to welcome them at the train station when they arrived on April 7, 1898. Honeycutt became a liaison and ambassador for the new settlers, assisting them in finding housing and jobs.

Not that settling in the Upper Midwest was an entirely idyllic existence for the First 85 and their descendants. André Cymone's grandfather, Simon Anderson, first sought work in Grand Forks, N.D., but encountered a sinister element in that city. "He got into a dispute with some folks there that didn't really want him to settle there, and they wound up putting his eye out — they stuck a pitchfork through his eye — so he always had a patch," Cymone explains. "He wound up leaving Grand Forks and went to homestead in Fergus Falls."

Although there certainly were welcoming people in Fergus Falls, "There was already Ku Klux Klan activity in Fergus Falls at that time," says Otter Tail County Historical Society's Missy Hermes. "I believe that it was some of the earliest Klan activity in the state was occurring here in Fergus Falls."

While one might assume the First 85 and their descendants expanded the culture in Fergus Falls — through the arts, music, cuisine, worship — Hermes says that's not really so. "One of the men who lived in Fergus Falls until the 1990s, I think he was at least 100 years old when he passed away, was Bill Spaulding," Hermes recounts. "Spaulding said that he regretted never going to the Oak Grove Cemetery — what he wanted to do was paint the headstones of the black people in that cemetery, he wanted to paint the headstones blue. He said he wanted to do that because when they were living in Fergus Falls, people didn't see them, but if he had done that, people would at least have been able to see them when they're dead."

It wasn't completely grim, though. Many of the First 85 and their descendants did well in Fergus Falls. Simon and Mattie Anderson raised a family, and as André Cymone discovered, his grandfather not only found meaningful employment in Fergus Falls, but was highly regarded there. After Cymone's father, Fred L. Anderson, passed away in 2014, Cymone found his grandmother's Bibles, in which she kept newspaper clippings and other personally significant documents, as well as his grandfather's ledger. As he sorted through the artifacts, Cymone noticed a surname that kept appearing in both the newspaper clippings and in the ledger. "When we cross-referenced it, it turns out this guy was the mayor of Fergus and my grandfather was his handyman!" Cymone says. "Doing all this cross-referencing, it turns out my grandfather was working for some pretty prominent people around Fergus Falls."

Not much remains of the First 85 in Fergus Falls today. The scarcity of jobs in Otter Tail County in the middle of the 20th century sparked another migration — this time from Fergus Falls to Minneapolis. What happened next, musically speaking, is detailed in Andrea Swensson's captivating book, Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.

The legacy of the First 85 remains indelible in the firmament of music history, of Minnesota history, of American history. Most importantly, it is tangible in the present day. "I think there are so many stories to tell, so many really interesting perspectives that came out of Fergus," Cymone says. "The Fraziers, the Tates, the Penicks, the Pattersons — there's so many people who lived there, came out of there, who have done amazing things. They definitely inspired me as a kid growing up in North Minneapolis."

André Cymone - official site

Cornbread Harris - official site

Jimmy Jam Harris - biography on The History Makers

Otter Tail County Historical Society

Kentucky Historical Society

Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound by Andrea Swensson (University of Minnesota Press)

Fred L. Anderson obituary, Star Tribune, June 29, 2014

The Hickman-Parks family: generations of patriotism, activism, service, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Feb. 10, 2015

Fergus Falls 'First 85' Reunion Celebrates Black Role In How The West Was Won, Huffington Post, Aug. 11, 2012