So Minnesota: The life of J. Frank Wheaton

Joe Mazan
Updated: March 01, 2021 10:38 PM
Created: March 01, 2021 03:15 PM

More than a century ago, one Minnesota lawmaker was a groundbreaker. 

J. Frank Wheaton was born on the east coast. Wheaton was the first Black man to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1894.

A few years later, Wheaton became the first Black man to serve in the Minnesota Legislature. 

After Wheaton was refused service at a Minneapolis restaurant, he introduced an amendment to a bill that prevented businesses from refusing service to anyone on the basis of race or color. The bill was signed into law by Gov. John Lind in 1899. 

"Very, very few people know what he did," Hamline University Philosophy Professor Sam Imbo said. "If you think about the NAACP, people like Roy Wilkins, people like Martin Luther King, they are going to build upon the things J Frank Wheaton had already started."

Later, Wheaton continued his law career in New York City. In 1922, he put up a high-priced bail bond for one of his clients who escaped town. Facing financial ruin, Wheaton took his own life at the age of 55.


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