William Green is Professor of History at Augsburg University. This interview is based on his new book The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity (University Of Minnesota Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write The Children of Lincoln?
WG: After 1870, when it seemed that African Americans were about to begin a period of unprecedented freedom with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, white supremacy grew even more emboldened throughout the South as racial discrimination deepened throughout the North. Notably, all of this happened on the complaisant watch of Republicans who controlled the federal government and had in various ways emancipated and enfranchised the African American in the name of their martyred president. I wanted to know whether a similar dynamic – complaisance in the face of, what Eric Foner termed, “America’s unfinished revolution” – occurred in Minnesota.
I had just finished Degrees of Freedom, which examined the origins of the civil rights in Minnesota, and I found through the experiences of black residents, traits that were similar to what I saw nationally. But that book looked at the history through the experiences of black Minnesotans. The Children of Lincoln sets out to understand the motivations of often well-intended white patrons who amended the state constitution to establish black suffrage only to conclude that they had done their part, failing (or refusing) to acknowledge that voting rights alone did little to secure opportunity (i.e., farms and apprenticeships for skilled jobs) and end racial discrimination (i.e., denied service in restaurants and theatres). And yet, their expectation of gratitude from African Americans had the effect of quashing any chance for candid discussion between supposed black and white friends. I wanted this book to detail why white patrons who had fought for black equality settled for second-class citizenship, not even five years after Appomattox.
To gain insight into this dynamic, I profiled four Minnesotans – a Radical Republican senator whose public service straddled the years of war and reconstruction, an Irish Protestant immigrant farmer who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Infantry, the founder of the postwar women’s suffrage movement in Minnesota, and a St. Paul businessman and church leader who was key to founding Pilgrim Baptist Church, that would become Minnesota’s oldest black congregation. Each profile offers an often overlooked corner of Minnesota history, which, when pieced together, much like a mosaic, detail a uniquely multifaceted portrait of 19th century liberals.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Children of Lincoln?
WG: 1) The paternalism of white “friends”, though seemingly benign, was as duplicitous to black opportunity as the actions of a bigot; and 2) Self-satisfaction with one’s high-minded work was the surest way to watch the purpose and success of that work fade away.
JF: Why do we need to read The Children of Lincoln?
WG: The Children of Lincoln reminds us that after the war, with the massive influx of immigrants, farmer and labor tensions, agitation for women’s suffrage, railroad policy, expansion of industrial growth and monopolies, railroad expansion, the growth of urban centers and relocation of African Americans, the North needed its own policy of reconstruction.
I also think that The Children of Lincoln uniquely examines how little the “friends of black people” understood the nature of racism, and in particular, when blinded by hubris, were unable or unwilling to see it in themselves.
The book’s title is lifted from the address by Frederick Douglass during the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial when he said to the white listeners who had assembled for the unveiling, “You are the children of Lincoln, but we (African Americans) are at best his step-children.” He uttered these words under the likeness of the martyred president standing with outstretched arms over a freed slave forever huddled at his knee, now frozen in bronze. To white observers, the statue seemed majestic but to black onlookers, the statue seemed to commemorate the eternal duty of blacks to be both unequal and grateful to their white patrons. One year after the dedication, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican President-elect, withdrew federal troops from the South to mark the end of both reconstruction and federal protection.
The Children of Lincoln examines how the actions of four Minnesotans who did not know each other, came to mirror what the national party leadership did. The book explores how the welfare of the African American came to be the welfare of an abstraction, for “the Children” had allowed the idea of freedom to supplant its reality. As such, I think the book gives an important perspective, and offers issues for discussion on the nature of race relations that carries over to today.
Readers of history – lay and professional – who are interested in Minnesota, Civil War, Dakota War, reconstruction, civil rights, black history, women’s suffrage, and church history, will be interested in The Children of Lincoln.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
WG: I suppose I always had the inclination to be an American historian. Born in Massachusetts and growing up in Nashville and New Orleans, I was surrounded by history and I enjoyed learning about the events of long ago. But those were the days when I was “only” a student of history. It wasn’t until I researched material for what would be my first publication – an account of an 1860 Minneapolis slave trial – when I felt that I had become a historian. I learned the thrill of the hunt, peeling away the layers, going ever deeper into the lives and actions of people who initially only revealed pieces of themselves, discerning how my subject and the larger context affected the other, interpreting the past and acquiring the courage to follow the evidence, honing the skill of engagingly telling the story, trying always to be disciplined, patient and just in doing the work.
JF: What is your next project?
WG: I have a manuscript on the history of liberalism in mid-19th century Minnesota that is being reviewed for publication; and I’m presently working on a biography of an African American woman who was active in the colored women’s club movement and women’s suffrage, and who drafted and successfully lobbied for passage of an anti-lynching bill in 1921.
JF: Thanks, William!