Duluth establishes African Heritage Commission at timely moment

Janet Kennedy, Duluth's first black city councilor, stressed the continued need for community members to address inequities.

Janet Kennedy is sworn in as a Duluth City Council member during the city of Duluth 2020 inauguration Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, at the DECC Harbor Side room. (Tyler Schank /

As protesters decried the death of George Floyd, a 47-year-old black man who apparently died at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this week, the Duluth City Council quietly passed an ordinance Tuesday night that is intended to give black people a new platform to make their voices heard.

The council voted 8-0 to amend Duluth's city code, adding an article to establish a Duluth African Heritage Commission that "will endeavor to act as a guide in the development of public policy, planning and services so that the African heritage community is adequately represented in these processes."

Janet Kennedy, Duluth's first black councilor elected to office, recalled that as a fifth grader growing up in western Duluth, some families did not want her attending school with their children and petitioned the school against her admission.

"This was in the 1970s, right? Now we're in 2020. It was only one generation," Kennedy said. But she noted that many local students still face similar challenges and prejudice, citing testimony by Tara Shepersky earlier that evening.

Shepersky spoke in favor of the commission, saying: "I am a mother to a 14-year-old African American child that has faced more hardship and faced more blatant and systematic racism in Duluth than I could ever imagine. These were not the same situations that I faced as a white child growing up and going to the public schools.


"The decisions that are made in Duluth have forced me to even pull my daughter from our public school system and pay for her education, which is a huge burden on my financials, just to try to alleviate some of the exposure that she has to this and allow her to have a semi-normal childhood," Shepersky said.

Kennedy thanked Shepersky for sharing her daughter's story, and said: "That's why we need this commission right? We needed it a long time ago. We need it today, and we need it to happen."

As she prepared for Tuesday's meeting and the anticipated creation of the African Heritage Commission, Kennedy said she was shaken by recent events, including video footage of Floyd pinned to the ground under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer while pleading, "I can't breathe."

"I watched it on the news, and I started to cry. And I'm, like, what am I going to say today, right? I needed to have this big speech. And I thought, I'm just going to talk about my heart and where I came from," Kennedy said.

"Our community will only survive and prosper as a whole when we're all walking on even ground. And by forming this commission, this is one way that we can help one group," she said.

Councilor Arik Forsman reflected on the recent unrest, saying: "The senseless loss of George Floyd's life in Minneapolis last night was a tragedy for our entire state, and it continues to play out tonight even as we're meeting."

Forsman said his heart has been heavy and thanked councilors Kennedy, Renee Van Nett and Gary Anderson for bringing forward the proposal to form an African Heritage Commission "so we can all be a small piece of trying to right some wrongs here in Duluth and better address racial disparities and inequities."

Van Nett, who is of Native American heritage, said Kennedy's election to the council provided the needed springboard for the creation of an African Heritage Commission.


"Prior to this, there's no way I could have brought this forward. We were just waiting for somebody like you to come forward and do this. And I am super stoked to support this," Van Nett said.

She noted that Duluth's Indigenous Commission has already given people of her own heritage a valuable voice in the city and said: "I know from talking to the Indigenous Commission they are in full support of this. And they have said that this is absolutely needed. We absolutely need to have this."

Anderson talked about this being a fitting time for Duluth to create the commission.

"I am especially grateful that we are doing this here in May 2020 as we approach the 100th year commemoration of the lynchings of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie โ€” three innocent African heritage men who were lynched in our community almost 100 years ago," he said.

As Duluth continues to wrestle with its checkered racist past and even present, Anderson said: "I see this ordinance today as a small step, but hopefully a significant step, in reparations that our community can and should be making."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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