Lives of Hastings’ first Black residents source of inspiration for descendants

Heidi Langenfeld holds a portrait
Heidi Langenfeld holds a portrait of the 1906 Hastings Graduating Class, which depicts Florence Curry, a relative of historian and educator James Curry.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

On a cold February afternoon, Heidi Langenfeld walks through downtown Hastings.

The 84-year-old, a self-proclaimed city historian, spent years uncovering stories of the first Black families who lived and worked in Hastings. 

A woman tells the history of the buildings
Heidi Langenfeld tells the history of the buildings outside Hastings City Hall on Feb. 2.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

“Andrew Jackson Overall and his family lived in a home right on this block. And his barber shop, he had a number of locations around town,” Langenfeld recalls. 

Langenfeld, who is white and was born in Hastings, says some of the buildings that stand here today were once operated by the first Black entrepreneurs, like Andrew Jackson Overall — who settled in the city in the 1800s. Many were barbers, farmers and mill workers.

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Old portraits
A photo of Hastings High School class of 1913 shows Virginia Curry in the bottom right corner. Many of the Currys still call Minnesota home.
Courtesy Hastings Pioneer Room

‘That’s where we started our life’

This part of history — the one that highlights triumph, not trauma — is why Greg McMoore feels it’s necessary to share the story of his own family’s journey to Hastings.

He’s a descendant of the Wallace family, who are now the McMoores. 

A person poses a portrait
Greg McMoore, in Hastings City Hall on Feb. 2, is a descendant of the Wallace family, who are now the McMoores.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

“My second-generation grandfather escaped slavery from Virginia and came to Hastings, Minn. And that's where we started our life. And certainly it's a story about his escape and what took place then,” McMoore said.

A lifelong resident of Minneapolis, McMoore recently completed a fellowship that enabled him to research his family history. He says his ancestors, John and Nancy Wallace, came to Hastings between 1865 and 1870.

People pose for photo in a classroom
A historic photograph shows Virginia Curry and Mary Wallace in a classroom together at Hastings High School.
Courtesy of James Curry

“This is where my grandmother, Rebecca Elsie Moore, was born and graduated from high school here at Hastings High School. And then grandma made her way to south Minneapolis. And that's where the family is right now,” McMoore said.

Composer and Hamline professor Davu Underwood Seru is also a descendant of the Wallace family.

Newspaper clipping
John Wallace mentioned in The Hastings Gazette in 1897.
Courtesy of The Hastings Gazette and Hastings Pioneer Room

He and Greg McMoore are cousins and began working together recently to piece together parts of their collective history. Seru says the names of his great-great grandparents' Clarence and Julia Underwood are written in the McMoore family Bible.

Davu Seru poses for a portrait
Davu Underwood Seru poses for a photo.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

“That's where we started to make the link,” Seru said. “So between the Underwoods who are, you know, my family are situated historically in north Minneapolis, and the Wallaces who again came to Hastings at around the time that the U.S. waged war against the Dakota people down here, 1862.”  

‘They were a presence’

These stories tell just one part of the rich Black history of Hastings — where only about 40 African Americans lived in 1870. By 1875, a civil rights law passed allowing Black people to serve on juries and share transportation, among other things.

At the time, there was no legal segregation, Black families were able to settle where they wanted and even buy houses. 

Schools were integrated.

But Langenfeld says the tone started to change and soon civil rights laws allowing Black people basic rights, were repealed in 1883. Black people couldn’t ride in the same railroad cars anymore, many had to wait for trains and would often miss going to work.

People listen during a presentation called “Breaking the Silence”
People listen during a presentation called “Breaking the Silence” at First Presbyterian Church in Hastings in October. The storytelling event chronicled the history of Hastings’ Black residents.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Langenfeld says it’s not clear what led to the burning of the Brown’s Chapel AME Church in the 1900s, but Jim Crow-like laws came into effect; cross burnings started taking place and the Ku Klux Klan was loud and active.

Newspaper article2
Article from The Hastings Gazette reports on Andrew Jackson Overall, who settled in Hastings in the 1800s and opened his barbershop.
Courtesy of The Hastings Gazette and Hastings Pioneer Room

However, Hastings was also a place where Black residents were able to open their own businesses.

Langenfeld says a territorial census conducted in 1857 found four Black men living in Hastings. Three of those men were barbers. 

On Hastings’ Main Street, Langenfeld recalls where these barbers did business. 

"So between 1857 and 1880, they were a presence on Second Street," she said.

In fact from the 1850s until the early 1900s, Black men owned and operated nearly all of the barbershops in the Twin Cities and nearby communities.

History and defiance; resilience and hope

Today, Hastings’ Black population sits at just 1.2 percent. But the history of Black entrepreneurship lives on with some of its current residents.

Tyler Gibson, who’s Black, owns Holtyme in Hastings — a screen printing and embroidery shop. The 33-year-old has lived in Hastings for six years and owned his shop in the city for three. 

He does everything from apparel printing to commercial printing and graphic designing. 

Gibson credits 80 percent of the reason why he decided to open up his shop in Hastings, to Langenfeld and her mission to make Hastings a place where Black families could prosper again. The other 20 percent, he says, is an act of defiance.

Tyler Gibsons looks on from behind the counter
Tyler Gibson looks on from behind the counter at his screen printing and embroidery shop Holtyme in Hastings on Feb. 2.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Gibson says his ancestors fought and died so that he could feel welcome anywhere and have ownership of any place.

"They kind of paid a price so that I can walk anywhere in this country and not have to feel welcome but know that I have the right to be there,” Gibson said.

Other descendants of Hastings’ early Black community say they feel a deep connection to their roots.

Seru says finding out his family’s history dates back to the 19th century, has been affirming in a way he couldn’t have prepared for. He says his family's history is part of an enduring legacy.

"It's also a story that's wrapped up in tragedy and black people's effort to do better than tragedy,” he said. “And to, to be Minnesotans, to own this place, to feel worthy, to feel ownership, again, ownership over their face as Minnesotans and I'm proud again, have taken up that torch."

Newspaper
Article from the Hastings Gazette reports on the last Black man who died in Hastings in 1954. It's unclear how long after 1954 other Black families began settling in Hastings again.
Courtesy of Hastings Gazette and Hastings Pioneer Room

Seru also says making this connection to Hastings in the 1860s was powerful because of the way that it coincides with typical narratives about Black migrations from the south, and also because it happened earlier than the great migration that started around World War I. 

McMoore says history is intentional — and though painful at times, revisiting parts of history helps him understand where he came from, how different his life is from his ancestors, and the change still needed today.

"Just the fact that we've been able to research and understand that our ancestors escaped slavery. What that journey was, like, where we are now has had an awful lot to do with who we are as a people, and where we're going to go,” McMoore said.

Family poses outside a house
Members of the Curry family pose for a photo in Hastings. The Currys were among the first Black families who settled in Hastings in the 1800s.
Courtesy of James Curry

The history of Hastings' Black community is more than the suffering families often endured.

It's also an acknowledgment of the community’s resilience under adversity, its commitment to being hopeful and its resolve to start lives in other cities, despite the systemic racism that attempted to stop them time and time again.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.