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There may not be a more timely Minnesota history book than ‘The Children of Lincoln’

The book’s author, historian and Augsburg professor William Green, will present “Fireside Chat: Racism in Minnesota: How We Got Here,” Sunday at the Plymouth Congregational Church.

William Green
In a narrative spanning the Civil War and Reconstruction, William Green profiles four white Minnesotans who championed civil rights but ultimately worked to keep black Americans down.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

It took William Green seven years to write his new book, “The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota 1860-1876.” Much of his research took place amidst a present-day backdrop of rising racism and new discussions of white privilege and white supremacy, but Green insists he works first and foremost as a historian.

“As an historian, my world is the 19th century,” said Green, an Augsburg University professor and former Minneapolis school superintendent, “so the motive to try and characterize the 20thcentury dynamic began to fade away to really understand what happened in America after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were ratified.”

A riveting account of the seeds of Minnesota Nice and a strain of white liberalism that started with a post-slavery attitude that’s exemplified early on in the book with one Republican leader’s comment that “We’ve done our part,” it’s difficult to imagine a more poignant or timely Minnesota history book than “The Children of Lincoln.” In a narrative spanning the Civil War and Reconstruction, Green profiles four white Minnesotans who championed civil rights but ultimately worked to keep black Americans down: Morton Wilkinson, the state’s first Republican senator; Daniel Merrill, a St. Paul business leader who helped launch the first Black Baptist Church; Sarah Burger Stearns, founder of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association; and Thomas Montgomery, an immigrant farmer who served in the Colored Regiments in the Civil War.

“Each played a part in securing the rights of African Americans,” writes Green, “and each abandoned the fight as the forces of hatred and prejudice increasingly threatened those hard-won rights.”

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A vice president of the Minnesota Historical Society and author of “Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912,” Green will present “Fireside Chat: Racism in Minnesota: How We Got Here” Sunday hosted by Hennepin History Museum at Plymouth Congregational Church.

He spoke with MinnPost last week in his office at Augsburg University, where he’s a professor in history.

MinnPost: I can’t believe there’s a more timely book in Minnesota right now, thinking about white supremacy, the patriarchy, white privilege, “We’ve done our part” and Minnesota Nice. Your book explains a lot — and how this state’s particular history of racism is so different from, say, Georgia, or Virginia, or Florida, or Illinois. How much does the here and now either inform you as a historian, or guide you, or inspire you?

William Green: It did all of those things. But I wanted to come at it from a historical perspective; I wanted to see where it began. As a historian, my world is the 19th century, so the motive to try and characterize the 20thcentury dynamic began to fade away to really understanding what happened in America after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were ratified, and after in Minnesota black suffrage was ratified, and after a law was passed to punish school districts for segregating kids on the basis of race — all of that is by 1870.

So the question is, what happened to the liberals? Because they were liberals who initiated all these initiatives. I saw that the history tends to be about relationships between blacks and whites and talking about racial issues, or civil rights issues — and that survived from the 19th century to the 21st century. But seldom has there been an examination of the dynamic between blacks and white liberals, the friends of blacks. What is the nature of that dynamic? Because it was on the watch of white liberals that we began to see the rise of white supremacy. What happened for the white patrons of black opportunity to go blind, in effect? Why had they turned away from black folks? Why did they watch circumstances that had pushed back the clock, that undercut all that they had achieved? Why did they let that happen?

Then that got me — since I’m a resident, I live in Minnesota, I’m a Minnesotan — I wanted to know what happened in Minnesota. Was the dynamic the same? And it was much more subtle, much more nuanced than in other Northern states during the same time. Which is to say this: Did white liberals in Minnesota in 1870 basically abandon civil rights, or was it really an issue of them having a much more limited perspective of what equality really should mean? And that became enough stuff for me to really dig in to. There was enough history there for me to try to unlock, in other words.

MP: As I understand it, this idea of white allies came from the East, with abolitionists and people who had opposed slavery there moving to Minnesota specifically, and bringing these ideals with.

WG: Yes. Minneapolis developed early on. St. Anthony, before it became Minneapolis, was a place that was viewed as being more tolerant of blacks. There was a law that was discussed in 1854 in the Legislature that would impose on blacks arriving in the state a special bond, where they had to pay to stay here. And of course, that was intended to discourage blacks from moving to Minnesota.

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The Democrats, who sponsored as a party the bill, failed to get it passed. Even though they were in the majority, because three of their number who were Metis legislators — mixed race, Indian and white — voted against it. And in doing this, the author of the bill said, “Next time I’m going to bring the same bill back, but this time we’re going to limit black people to Hennepin County.”

This is 1854. You go back to 1849 when Minnesota becomes officially a territory, it’s like every other frontier that’s controlled by the Democratic Party, and that is the party that enables and supports slavery, even though you don’t have as widespread slavery or as fervent slavery as in other parts of the country.

Nonetheless, John North comes in from the Northeast and he is one of the more liberal members of the new Republicans, and he moves to St. Anthony, and he wants to turn it into a New England in the West, so to speak. He wants to turn it into a place of reform, and he actively recruits people from the New England and New York region who are reformers to move to the region. He basically starts that tradition of liberalism in Minneapolis and St. Anthony. Of course, he would leave and relocate to a hamlet on the shores of Cannon River, and that would become Northfield, named after himself. He would be in favor of women’s suffrage, in favor of not only fighting slavery but black suffrage, and he would be in favor of campaigning to raise funds to arm Easterners who want to move to Kansas to fight the bushwackers. So he was a guy who was very much responsible for the liberal tinge of Minnesota politics being based in Minneapolis and St. Anthony.

MP: So there were two things happening at the same time. This liberalism and progressivism of the time, but also the attitude from the people you profile who just say, “We’re white, we’re right, this is it.”

WG: That’s exactly right. First of all, none of these people I profile had black friends. None of them had much interaction with blacks, other than in the abstract, and so black people were an abstraction to them. Which means there was no avenue for candid conversation. The only blacks that Wilkinson knew were the porters, who to him seemed like they were doing well in the wake of all he’d done as a U.S. senator.

MP: There’s that fascinating detail you have where he said he decided, after having purportedly championing civil rights, that he was not going to talk to any black people other than the porters. Which was essentially making up the class system on the spot to his liking.

WG: As a matter of fact, he would take it one step further. As if that was not enough. This was the most radical of the radicals in Minnesota politics. This was a guy who had pushed for abolition and black rights. He wanted blacks to be able to serve in the Army, and he wanted the federal government to provide financial support for the families of freedmen, who had fought. I mean, this is one tough son of a bitch. I call him the unforgiving puritan in a sense, because he had those deep roots.

But within a year of him giving that speech where he said, “We’ve done our part,” he’d already come to view civil rights as part of a fabric of the “bloody shirt.” Which was his view of how Republicans kept getting elected, even though they were corrupt. They would tell their supporters, who knew that the Republicans were corrupt and were not taking care of their interests, “You gotta vote for me, because the other guy was pro-South, was a rebel. And if we lose, that means that your son and father died in vain.” That’s called the bloody shirt.

He sees any kind of discussion about civil rights as just one more fiber to that shirt that Republicans are cynically using as a ploy to distract frustrated and angry Republican voters from voting against them. He says, “You guys are just trying to distract us from the fact that you’re not doing your job.” He becomes cynical to civil rights. He sees the things happening in the South as being the cause and consequence of what Republicans in Washington are doing. He has sympathy for the Klan, and it’s stunning how far he had come, thinking that liberalism was going to lead us to a path of destruction.

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MP: What are parallels to the stories you tell in the book and what we’re living through here and now?

WG: The biggest moral for me is the sense that when we begin to become complacent to our victories, to the good deeds that we’ve done, that’s the first step to losing what we initially set out to do. Part of what happened in the 1870s, and part of what I see happening today, is that folks that voted high-mindedly and enthusiastically began to take their foot off the pedal, in effect. Began to think, “Well, that is done. We’ve got the first black president, so now we don’t have to worry about the education of black children, or the opportunity of black adults, or health care or anything, because we’ve got Obama.”

The higher purpose of what Obama represented was lost, and it allowed allies, or people who were willing to come together for a common purpose, to go their separate ways — for tribal reasons. What comes from the book is what happens when we take our foot off the pedal.

Another part of it, in the story of Sarah Burger Sterns, early on [she] was very much in favor of universal suffrage. She fought for the end of slavery, but as people who were friends and allies of her husband’s began to denigrate her for not just going back into the shadows — “This is the ‘Negro hour,’ we’re not going to deal with women’s suffrage” — and she began to see that as a tool to keep her subjugated, and that bred resentment against black people and in particular black men.

And that’s the kind of tension that existed between Hillary [Clinton]’s people and Barack [Obama]’s people in the 2008 election. It was the same kind of dynamic: Who crosses the threshold first?

MP: It’s also interesting, thinking about the upcoming Women’s March, which has been canceled in California out of fear it will be “overwhelmingly white.” It’s like we’re dealing with the exact same problems with people supporting universal suffrage and civil rights as 150 years ago.

WG: I’m glad that they demonstrated, personally. But I was in a church in southwest Minneapolis on the threshold of that [first] demonstration and my turn at the lectern ended as they were preparing the placards and what not for the demonstrations, and one of the organizers said to me, “Why can’t we get black women to participate with us?” And that’s a whole thing: Sarah Burger Stearns had no black women in her organization. [Women’s rights activists and suffragists] Elizabeth Cady [Stanton] and Susan B. Anthony had no blacks in their organization, and as a matter of fact as they organized in the South, they discouraged blacks from attending, because they knew it would put off the Southern women who held racist views. There’s a long history between black women and white women, and it’s not often discussed, and it’s one reason why the two have been able to go farther apart, because there hasn’t been much of an effort to bridge these things. I see roots of that in the Sarah Stearns story.

MP: Is this the first book to trace the roots of white supremacy in Minnesota?

WG: The white liberal complicity to white supremacy and white privilege, yes. As far as I know, and I’ve looked. And it was kind of unnerving, because I wasn’t sure how people would receive this message. This isn’t a book about black people, even though it’s a book about race. It’s about white people, and I’ve found that the public has been generally quite receptive to this discussion. The historians have been sort of quiet, because I’ve had to look at the canon through a different set of eyes. But it explains why things didn’t happen.

MP: Thinking about the Pillsburys and Carnegies, and all these black folks moving here with no foundation, no help, no family: So much of it is a detailed Minnesota telling of class and, to use the phrase, how many were “born on third base, thinking they hit a homerun.”

WG: Exactly, exactly. You have a situation where blacks are saying, “How can we talk about racism after our friends gave us the right to vote? After our friends fought in the war, and passed the law so we could fight the war so we could get some honor for ourselves? After all that they’ve done, how can we say that that wasn’t enough?” So blacks were disinclined to say anything about that. What they did is turn inward and deal with creating a community — churches and social groups — and all of this is covered by the white press that proves to the white community as proof positive that everything’s cool.

MP: The truth of this state is that post-Emancipation Proclamation, a lot of people came here with no support, no cultural ties, and no one looked out for them.

WG: It’s important to talk about where we fell short in a manner that honors what people did at that time.

MP: Yes, to recreate that mindset and the ways of the times. We can sit here with 20-20 hindsight, but you’re a historian and you’re interested in the facts and times as they were.

WG: Exactly. Looking back, it’s easy to point fingers and what not. My challenge was … I wanted to honor the sacrifices they made, given their own limited experiences. What to me now is a limited experience, but at the time was revolutionary.

MP: Your talk at Plymouth Congregational Church is “Racism in Minnesota: How We Got Here.” Will you connect dots from the 1800s to today?

WG: First of all, I want to talk about history. People are interested in that, and I’ll use that as a springboard to these larger issues. For me, it will be telling the stories, while leaving room for people to ponder and fill in, so I want to have as much of a dialogue as possible. There are so many elements to this story — complicity, complacency to our good deeds, the absence of relationships with black people we were supposed to champion. The double-bind that blacks go through to not spit in the eye of their white friends and powerful friends, because their survival depends on it.

The stories of Wilkinson and Montgomery and Stearns are stories that I want people to know about. We’ll use those stories as a way of getting at the moral inventory of these people. The four different ways that they lost sight of their initial vision of freeing black people, and how easy it was for them to lose sight. I want to convey how easy it is for the sense of success being its own problem, if that’s all that we have that gives us a sense of who we are as high-minded people. It has to be an existential movement, and the problems of inequity aren’t simply going to go away simply because we’re tired of dealing with them.

The book is also about the passion that they brought as leaders to this, because they were dealing with a population that is very much complacent already. They’ve never lived in a society where blacks were equal. This was a whole new world. It took leaders to tell them, “We’re going to do this because it’s the right thing, and it’s going to be awkward and we’ll figure it out, but we need to trust each other to know that this is the right thing.” You’ve got to have a leader who can say that, and who can put his or her credibility on the line and inspire people to follow suit.

It’s so easy for people to feel despondent. I’ve certainly felt that way, given the past several months. And when you’re like that, you’re susceptible to walking away from the struggle. Washing your hands. So in a sense, I’m hoping this can be discussed and we can talk about how you need each other to work through it.