Freed slave gets headstone in Stillwater 107 years after his death

Alex Jokich
Updated: October 28, 2020 06:25 PM
Created: October 28, 2020 06:03 PM

A freed slave has finally gotten a headstone in Stillwater, more than a century after his death.

The community came together Wednesday at Fairview Cemetery to honor the life of Jim Carter and dedicate his gravesite.


"I think it is special because it brings to light his history, his struggles," said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. "And this is an honor for everybody, then, now and in the future."

Peterson said an intern, named Alix Cogan, was the one who realized the headstone was missing.

Cogan is a senior at the University of St. Thomas. She said she noticed Carter's portrait while giving historical society tours and wanted to learn more about him.

She discovered Carter was born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia in the 1830s and was freed after the Civil War. He initially moved to Wisconsin and eventually to Stillwater, where he worked several odd jobs for a number of years.

"In 1883, the Minnesota National Guard was formed and Stillwater had an armory," Peterson said. "Company K was in Stillwater. The armory needed a custodian and Jim was the one who got that job, so he lived at the armory and ended up working there for 30 years. Not only did he become a part of that group, he became a part of the community. He was very, very well respected."

When Carter died in December 1913, the entire community mourned his passing.

"They said it was the largest funeral that Stillwater had ever seen at that point," Cogan said.

An article in the January 1914 newspaper read: "Because of an honest endeavor to live right, to do the work he engaged to do to the best of his ability, James Carter, the colored caretaker of Company K Armory, was given a burial last Sunday that many men of more prominence will never receive... The room was filled, every chair being occupied and many standing."

Cogan decided to visit his grave at Fairview Cemetery one day but couldn't find it. That's when she realized Carter had never been given a proper headstone.

Cogan set the wheels in motion to make his final resting place complete.

"It's just as important to us now as it was when he died, and I want to make sure everyone knows that we recognize him, we see him and we love him," Cogan said.

Fairview Cemetery ended up donating the headstone, which was engraved by Twin City Monuments at no cost.

Wednesday's dedication ceremony was led by the Washington County Historical Society and attended by members of the Minnesota National Guard, the Stillwater mayor and many residents of the town.

The Minnesota National Guard Honor Guard gave Carter a special salute, with a rifle volley and military honors at the gravesite. It was a tribute to his service at the armory, even though he never served in the armed forces himself.

Community members who were present said they were inspired by Carter's legacy of breaking down the barriers of racism, as someone who was born into slavery but went on to become a beloved part of Stillwater's history.

"He has cleared the path that I now travel, so that's the main reason why I wanted to be a part of this today," said Tony Carr, a Stillwater resident who is an advocate for diversity and inclusion. "You think about it, slavery to freedom by way of Wisconsin and Minnesota, that's a journey. We look at that story and we can learn a lot. When you read about him and how he brought people together and how he was respected, I think his legacy is of unity and peace and respect."

"You don't need to do something special, something large to be an important person," Cogan added. "I think this tells that story that being who you are is really important."

Carter's gravesite is located in the northwest corner of Fairview Cemetery, which is open to the public.

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