Black History Month proclamation spotlights statue of first Black businessman

city council

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Black Americans have played a part in Moorhead’s history since the early days of the city’s development. Mayor Shelly Carlson acknowledged their role both then and now when she officially proclaimed February Black History Month in Moorhead at Monday’s city council meeting.

She recognized the ground-breaking leadership of two current citizens of African American descent, former mayor Johnathan Judd – just named to the bench in Minnesota’s Seventh Judicial District – and Rachel Stone, elected in November to the Moorhead school board.

But the story of people of color who have helped build Moorhead goes back much farther. Markus Krueger, program director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, updated the council on plans to honor perhaps the first of them, Felix Battles, for his role as the first Black barber.

The Civil War veteran, Krueger, said, was born to enslaved parents in Memphis in 1843. He moved to St. Paul and became one of 106 African Americans from Minnesota who joined and fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.

He came to Moorhead in the 1870s, when he established a barbershop in the elite J. Cook House hotel on Center Avenue and Eighth Street. He operated it until 1907.

Historian Krueger has long been intrigued by the pioneer barber and businessman. In 2018 he gave a presentation on his life and work as part of a series at Junkyard Brewing; that night, his audience contributed several thousand dollars to create a permanent memorial to the pioneer.

But he ran into an obstacle: He could find no photos of Battles at all. Instead, he chose a photo of an unknown Union soldier, then stylized it. Laser-cut out of steel, the 5 foot 8 inch depiction (same as its namesake) awaits designation of the site where it will be installed permanently.

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