Professor works to create conversations, connections through teaching and research

For Dr. Christopher Lehman, to teach and research history is to find the humanity in generations past.

Lehman joined St. Cloud State University in 2002 and is now the chair of ethnic studies within the University’s Department of Ethnic, Gender and Women's Studies. Prior to that, he was the first African American to graduate through the Honors College at Oklahoma State University. He then went on to earn his master’s in history and his doctorate in African American studies from University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Lehman said he is a “second-generation professor,” as his father is a retired English professor. He grew up enjoying the college or university atmosphere and knew it was where he wanted to work; it was just a matter of figuring out his field of study. American history has interested Lehman since he was a teenager, and one year he was gifted a novelty historical newspaper for Christmas. It listed different factoids from the time he was born — the price of milk, the No. 1 song, the World Series champions and so on. For the world leaders section, Richard Nixon was listed as president of the United States, but there was a blank space where his vice president’s name should be. Thinking it a typo at first, Lehman would go on to research and learn that he just happened to be born in the months between former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s swearing in ceremony.

Dr. Christopher Lehman“Figuring that out was my first research project and it just never stopped,” he said. “Basically I’ve been always looking up something ever since then.”

Lehman has found teaching and researching at St. Cloud State to be a good fit, and said he’s part of a very supportive community within his department that also extends to Stearns History Museum.

“I’ve also found that central Minnesota in general is a very good place to research, meaning that there is lots of untapped history here,” he said. “Some of it I’ve gone out of my way to research on purpose, and then other things I’ve stumbled upon by accident — but either way there were things that very few people had written about or had not written about at all.”

Some of that research led to Lehman publishing the book, “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State,” in 2019. The book examines that, through a set of mutually beneficial relationships, southern slaveholders and Minnesotans enriched Minnesota while helping to continue the enslavement of the men and women whose labor made that wealth possible. The publication led to a number of honors, including the Minnesota Book Award in the Minnesota Nonfiction category in 2020. “Slavery’s Reach” would also lead to Lehman being honored with the inaugural Ruth Riester Award for Historical Contributions to the Humanities in late 2023 by the Minnesota Humanities Center.

“I’m still a little bit in shock by it,” he said. “As a local historian, I’ve of course read many local history books by great, phenomenal scholars, so for me to be the first winner of this award is very humbling.”

Lehman has a sequel of sorts scheduled to publish in spring 2024, entitled “It Took Courage.” He said it centers on Eliza Winston — “one of the state’s more famous enslaved people outside of Dred and Harriet Scott” and “someone who was caught up in that system but was able to become free.” Winston had been taken by her enslavers from their home in Mississippi on their vacation to Minnesota in 1860. Minnesota was a free state then — making Winston technically free — but with so much money to be made from southern tourism at the time, Minnesota wasn’t willing to enforce that freedom at risk of upsetting visiting enslavers. However, locals managed to help Winston to freedom in a landmark court case.

“She won the case; it was basically open and shut because Minnesota was a free state, and she left her enslavers that same day and for the rest of her life she was free,” Lehman said. “She left Minnesota that year, but she left free.”

Through stories like Winston’s as well as others throughout history, it is Lehman’s hope to start conversations and inspire others to explore their own foundations and backgrounds.

Dr. Christopher Lehman during dedication of the Ruby Cora Webster building.“I believe that where we are now and who we are now is not just a result of what we’ve done in our own lives, but on the basis of what was provided for us or the ways in which people who came before us shaped the places we are now, and I’ve always felt that I stand on other people’s shoulders,” he said. “I enjoy watching my students come up with ideas for how to take things I’ve researched and go in all sorts of different directions with them that are very insightful and that I would’ve never thought to do.

“But that’s the point of being a researcher and being a scholar, is being someone who contributes to conversations and tries to put forth a convincing argument based on the findings — it’s meant to be for a specific space and time because there will always be new sources found and new ways to find them, new technologies to find them, so it’s always my hope that what I do can be part of the conversation, but that it shouldn’t stop a conversation and it should inspire people to think deeply and find the relevance of the studies in their own lives.”

Lehman has led by example during his time at SCSU, with some highlights including serving as a faculty advisor for the Council of African American Students from 2003 to 2019, and being instrumental in the naming of Ruby Cora Webster Hall on campus. The former Business Building — known by its street address, the 51 building — was renamed in 2018 to recognize the University’s first African American graduate after Lehman submitted a proposal accompanied by more than 2,200 signatures in support.

It’s Lehman’s hope that the time comes where learning about slavery in Minnesota, for example, is not something students have to wait until college to learn about. He said he hopes it won’t be such a surprising topic, and that neither would restrictive covenants in Minnesota or anything else that has to do with a policy put forth by local or state governments that caused harm to a specific demographic in Minnesota — that it would just be accepted as part of the country’s years of existence.

“My approach in teaching history or teaching about America’s past or Minnesota’s past, is to find the humanity in people. And what I mean by that is to look at the things people did or governments did and what their motivations were, and take what they did and then ask the students, ‘What would you do? How would you react if you were on the receiving end of the discrimination? What do you think of the people who were doing the discriminating? If you had the same kinds of benefits the people in power did, would you be doing the same things?’” he said. “I want people to see themselves in the historical actors they’re reading about or that I’m teaching about, and to not glorify the people celebrated as heroes, but to humanize them instead — to see them as people who are flawed, people who did things they thought made sense to them, or at least did things because it was just a matter of survival. I don’t go out of my way to make the people who did the discriminating ultra-evil, but I also try not to go out of my way to glorify the people who suffered as people who were totally perfect in how they responded.

“Just look at the reality of what different people did and the circumstances of why, and then look at the impact and try to figure out what it means for us as Minnesotans and Americans now in the 21st century.”


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