Documentary by MSUM students centers on African-American Civil War veteran and Moorhead barber

Though no known photo exists of Felix Battles, his likeness and legacy have withstood the test of time. The Civil War soldier, barber, and community organizer who was enslaved as a child is being remembered in a new documentary short film produced by students at Minnesota State University Moorhead School of Communication and Journalism.

With help from the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County and under the supervision of WDAY reporter and MSUM Broadcast Documentary Instructor Kevin Wallevand, students will premiere “The Pioneer Barber” at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Center for Business , room 109. The event is free and open to the public.

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The prototype for a monument honoring Civil War soldier Felix Battles, located outside Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Center for Business. The monument pays homage to Battles’ contributions to the Red River Valley.

Contributed

Battles was born into slavery on a plantation in Memphis and escaped as a teenager, according to Clay County historians. He arrived in the area and worked on steamboats before serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. He arrived in the Fargo-Moorhead area as it was being settled, working as a barber in Moorhead with shops on what is now Center Avenue.

“Felix played a pivotal role in Moorhead’s early business community. And as a well-respected barber, he paved the way for more persons of color to move to this region and call Fargo-Moorhead home,” Wallevand said.

The making of ‘The Pioneer Barber’

The documentary is student-driven, Wallevand described. Students write, research, study, interview, and produce-edit a entire film during the school year. Running just under 27 minutes, “The Pioneer Barber” is the culmination of the work of more than a dozen students majoring in everything from broadcast journalism to film.

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Christopher Hovden, a broadcast journalism major, directed “The Pioneer Barber” and said it was an incredible learning experience, from both an artistic lens and a technical angle.

“From managing a group of people to different styles of storytelling and different ways to tell a story, it was a huge learning experience,” Hovden said. “There weren’t any images of Felix, for example, so we had to find ways to put together so much information that could be easily understood and really truly tell the entire story with what we had.”

Wallevand, who covered the monument story in a news assignment last fall , said he was glad his students chose to feature Battles in their documentary project.

“I did a story when they were cutting the outline of the statue that would go up at MSUM. I got to thinking that there seems to be more to the story than a news article,” Wallevand said. “And so the students just took it on.”

Researching the past

Archives at MSUM as well as the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County were integral to the project, according to Hovden.

Research efforts uncovered many clues to the history of Black Americans in the Red River Valley, including archival documentation from Roland Dille’s tenure as MSUM’s president that revealed threats on his life for welcoming African American students to campus.

“They really went deep into this to learn more about this individual who was so important to our region. It more than scratched the surface,” Wallevand said.

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Hovden said his film team uncovered a probate inventory document from 1856 that revealed Battles’ monetary worth as an enslaved child in Holly Springs, Mississippi was $600.

“We found hundreds of documents of his life as a slave and his journey from the south and up to Minnesota,” Hovden said.

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A page from an 1856 probate inventory for the estate of plantation owner William Dawson in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County / Contributed

Seeking historical accuracy

As journalism students, accuracy is everything, and Wallevand’s students were sure to include artistic and cultural elements that reflected what people from Battles’ time might have experienced.

“We felt we had to reflect some more of that era in some way, so we had a student reach out to the Second South Carolina String Band, which informed the film’s music by representing something Felix and his family would have listened to,” Hovden said. “We can’t really explain or realize what his life might have been like, but the music is more personal.”

Wallevand said students searched the area for “the perfect barber pole” to photograph and video for the documentary, too. “But without a photo [of Battles], it comes down to artistic storytelling, especially these days [when] we’re so used to having quick access to images,” he said.

‘A history and personality’

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Minnesota State University Moorhead Broadcast Journalism student Christopher Hovden directed “The Pioneer Barber” and collaborated with a dozen classmates to bring the project to life.

Christopher Hovden / Contributed

For Wallevand, seeing the final film on the big screen is one thing, but celebrating the efforts of his students to bring Battles to life in a way that hasn’t been done before is most satisfying.

Hovden, who graduates in 2025, said the project ultimately helped him understand how to show and tell a story that’s both personal and historical.

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“You only have time to scratch the surface in a short news story, but for this film, you get to dig into what happened and why,” Hovden said. “Even though I don’t have a visual image of him, he seems to have a history and personality to me now.”

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.

Lonna Whiting is an independent journalist and content strategy consultant based in Fargo. She covers a broad range of topics, including local arts, health care, senior living, startups, technology and education. Whiting also writes extensively about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease for journals and publications such as Being Patient, an award-winning global news forum for dementia researchers, physicians, patients and their care partners. Read more of Whiting’s work at lonna.co.

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