Duluth’s Lack of Diversity

George Bonga, date unknown. (Image: Public Domain)

While from 1870 to 1920 Duluth was as much a melting pot as any other industrial city on the Great Lakes, today it could hardly be described as ethnically diverse by modern standards. The population of people of color has never been large.
While the Treaty of 1854 ceded land in Minnesota adjacent to Lake Superior to the United States, until 1869 more Ojibwe lived within Duluth’s borders than did EuroAmericans, and were a vital part of the community’s barter economy during the lean years from 1858–1868. That ended when northern European immigrants arrived in 1869 to help build the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. Their heads full of erroneous stories about the “savage natives” in the United States, the immigrants refused to work with the Ojibwe. Most Ojibwe left Duluth for the Fond du Lac reservation in Carlton, and no Ojibwe were recorded in the 1870 Duluth census Those who stayed often did not participate in the census or married EuroAmericans and registered their heritage under their spouse’s nationality. Since then no Duluth census has ever recored an Ojibwe community in Duluth greater than 3 percent of the population.

Duluth’s earliest African American residents were also part Ojibwe. In the 1850s, seven of Duluth’s eleven African American residents were members of the George Bonga family. Bonga was the son of Pierre Bonga, a free, black, fur trader, and his Ojibwe wife. George’s brother Stephen, born near the mouth of the St. Louis River in about 1800, lived in Superior. In the 1870s just twenty-two African Americans lived in Duluth, nearly all of whom lived in the Glenn at Point of Rock or on Rice’s Point.

That number grew slowly. In the 1880s most of Duluth’s African Americans lived in the Central Hillside, establishing St. Mark’s African Methodist Church along Fifth Avenue East in 1890, when just 220 people of African descent lived in the Zenith City. In those early decades most worked as porters, waiters, messengers, janitors, and valets. In the 1890s Alexander Miles, a barber turned real estate developer, was considered the richest black man in the region. At the turn of the century, fewer than four hundred African Americans lived in Duluth.

Duluth’s African American population grew after the Minnesota Steel plant opened in 1916. That year United States Steel recruited a number of blacks from southern states who agreed to work for less money than European immigrants. Most lived in substandard housing in Gary. Despite the recruitment, Duluth’s African American population failed to grow substantially. The 1920 census recorded Duluth’s population of “Negroes” at 495, or 0.5 percent. According to historian David Vassar Taylor, race relations became progressively worse in Duluth following World War I, and “restaurants, hotels, and theaters, which had reluctantly served blacks before the war, refused to do so or attempted to establish segregated seating.” After the lynchings of three innocent black men in 1920, many of Duluth’s established African American families left the city.

By 1940, the African-American population had dropped to 314, but it began to grow following World War II. Today about 2,300 African Americans live in Duluth, most in the East and Central Hillsides and the West End, now called Lincoln Park. Redlining in Duluth’s higher-income neighborhoods kept African Americans from making homes in the east or the heights.

Census data reveals that historically the Zenith City has never had more than a few dozen foreign-born Latinx or Asian people living within its borders at any one time. While Duluth once boasted four synagogues, its Jewish population peaked at four thousand in the 1930s. Today approximately 160 households make up the congregation at the Reform Temple Israel while about seventy-five people worshipped at the city’s Orthodox Adas Israel, destroyed in a fire in 2019. Those numbers do not include Duluthians who identify as Jewish but are not affiliated with a synagogue.

The 2010 census reported 1,988 Blacks living in Duluth. Together, Blacks and Native Americans make up just under 5 percent of Duluth’s current population. Roughly 1,800 Duluthians (just over 2 percent) considered themselves mixed race of white and either African or Native American ancestry. Data estimates from 2017 show that 88.9 percent of Duluthians identify as white, 3.4 percent as two or more races, 2.6 percent as African American, 2.3 percent as Hispanic or Latinx, 1.87 percent as Native American, 1.68 percent as Asian, and 0.36 percent as some other race.