When History Meets Politics in Minnesota

Fort Snelling

Minnesota state senator Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) has proposed cutting $4 million (18%) from the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society because the society wants to integrate native American history at historic Fort Snelling.

Here is a taste of a Pete Kotz’s piece at City Pages:

She doesn’t believe in history. Or at least the history of Minnesota that occurred before Europeans showed up, took everybody’s stuff, and sometimes slaughtered the previous residents.

So she’s proposed gutting state funding for the Minnesota Historical Society, hacking $4 million from its $11 million budget. The society, you see, has committed a grave offense.

It posted a banner at its Fort Snelling visitor center that included the word “Bdote.” As in: “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” This was the Dakota name for the site on the bluffs above the Mighty Mississippi, which, as you may have guessed, was long in existence before the Euros showed up.

To some, it would seem only natural that historians present, well, history. Kiffmeyer objects. She initially refused to say exactly why she wanted to gut the society, as the Star Tribune’s Jennifer Brooks notes. She would only tell colleagues that it had become “highly controversial.” So she wants it to pay with mass layoffs, museum closures, and reduced educational fare for kids.

That left Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) to articulate the GOP position: “The controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history. I do not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing. I believe it to be revisionist history.”

Read the entire piece here.

This is yet another example of how history gets politicized by legislators who have no idea what they are talking about.

Kent Whitworth, the Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, responds to the proposed budget cuts in this podcast with Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz.  I love Kent’s passion and the spirit in which he is leading his staff through this crisis.

Is it Time for a New Job?

Lighthouse

I wonder if the Minnesota Historical Society will consider me for Lee Radziak’s old job?    I don’t know how to run a lighthouse, but I am sure I could figure it out.  (I am also going to have to convince Joy–she doesn’t like the cold!).

Here is a taste of Euan Kerr’s piece at National Public Radio:

There may be few occupations considered more romantic than being a lighthouse keeper. Lee Radzak, who will retire Friday after 36 years at the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior’s North Shore, might argue there are few jobs that people misconceive more.

Split Rock has been drawing visitors since the 1920s, when Highway 61 opened. People marvel at the lighthouse standing sentinel on the 160-foot cliff looking out across the breathtaking expanse of Lake Superior.

Lee Radzak moved here in 1983.

“This was a perfect place,” he said. “My wife and I just got married a couple of months earlier and we were ripe for a change so it worked out great.”

For lighthouse lovers — and apparently there are a lot — Split Rock seems to evoke solitude, at least based on the questions Radzak has fielded again and again.

Here is more:

The job will be posted in mid-August. Minnesota Historical Society manager Ben Leonard will lead the search for a replacement.

“Yeah, I think that this job will be probably the hardest job to fill in the historical society,” he said. “Because people think about the view, they don’t think about the email or the reports or the HR issues, because they aren’t romantic.”

Leonard says he’s looking for a historian with the patience and skills to manage crowds and to deal with harsh weather — and the occasional bear. But even without a formal posting, the Historical Society is already getting inquiries about the job.

Read the rest here.  I wonder if they have WiFi up there?

The Author’s Corner with William Green

image_miniWilliam 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!

The Author’s Corner with David Krueger

David M. Krueger is an independent scholar of American religious history based in Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Myths of the Rune Stone?
DK: Growing up as a farm kid in Minnesota, I always had a fascination with the land and its history. I remember my dad showing me the deed to the farm, which recorded the owners dating back to October 1, 1867. The original “owner” is listed as the U. S. General Land Office. As I got older, I became increasingly curious about the untold history of the area prior to that date. My home town of Alexandria has long been captivated by a myth that Vikings had visited the region long before the explorations of Christopher Columbus. However, in graduate school, I began to think more critically about the local obsession with imaginary Norsemen. I recognized that by researching this cultural phenomenon, I could learn much about how white Americans came to terms with living on land that was once occupied by someone else.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Mythsof the Rune Stone?
DK: The book reveals why so many Minnesotans accepted as authentic a phony artifact found in a Swedish immigrant’s farm field as evidence that Christian Vikings were killed locally by Native Americans in 1362. The inscribed artifact, known as the Kensington Rune Stone, and the myths it inspired serve as a lens through which we can understand better the fears, anxieties, and aspirations of a wide variety of Minnesotans including Scandinavian immigrants, small town boosters, Catholics, and those who wished to commemorate the white settlers who died in the Dakota War of 1862.

JF: Why do we need to read Myths of the Rune Stone?
DK: The category of American civil religion is often thought of in terms of a monolithic discourse about the meaning of the nation and its origins, but this book emphasizes the malleability and contested nature of America’s foundation myths. The book also reveals the inner workings of how a region’s foundation myth was created and adapted over time to meet new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities. Finally, it is a case study of why beliefs and myths persists despite evidence to the contrary.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DK: In the faith community in which I grew up, I was subjected to a number of pseudo-scientific writings that argued for a literal understanding of Biblical creationism and pseudo-historical writings that aimed to prove that the U.S. was founded as an exclusively Christian nation. I am grateful for several mentors who nurtured my hermeneutic of suspicion toward such writings and encouraged me instead to pursue research and writing that eschewed ideology, embraced peer review, and modeled academic integrity. 

JF: What is your next project?
DK: My next book project will likely shift away from the microhistory genre to analyzing and comparing mythic claims to American origins more broadly. Additionally, I am in the beginning stages of developing an online magazine dedicated to the religious history of Philadelphia. In the near future, I will be soliciting contributions for articles and podcast interviews.

JF: Thanks, David! 

Michael Limberg on Day 2 and Day 3 of the Spring Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota
Michael Limberg, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and a seasoned correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home (check out his posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association), is in Minneapolis this week for the Spring Meeting of the American Society for Church History.  Here is second and final post from the conference.   You can read his first post here.  –JF

It’s been a busy couple of days at the American Society for Church History Spring Meeting.  Between the graduate student reception and practicing for my presentation last night, I didn’t have a chance to write a post for Friday.  I won’t try to recap all the panels from the last two days, but here are a few notes on interesting developments from the panels and conference events.

Missions, race, and immigration have been recurring themes in the sessions I’ve attended.  Many of the papers on missions have been concerned with figuring out a new historiographic paradigm for missionary work, somewhere between celebrating missionaries as heroic figures and castigating them as exploitative agents of imperialism.  In every panel on overseas missions, the comments pushed for more inclusion of sources that would convey the voices of the missionized as well as the missionaries.  Papers in my panel by Andy Dibb and Andrew Russell took good steps in that direction by including voices from a series of revival movements in Africa and a Swedenborgian church movement started by black South Africans.  Many of the papers, ranging from early American topics to contemporary church movements, focused on how and why churches reached out to racial outsiders.  Phillip Gollner’s paper on Swedes participating in the anti-Mormon movement during the late 1800s and Mark Grandquist’s work on Lutheran churches in Minnesota working with African immigrants were two of a number of examples.  Immigration history was tied into that question.

A brown-bag lunch on Friday with Robert Ellison and Keith Francis introduced an expanding set of resources for pursuing sermon studies as a growing sub-field with the help of online databases.  (Marshall explains what the term and field include and accomplish here).  They argued for the importance of sermons as a way to understand events or trends in the larger society, but acknowledged the difficulty of sorting through the haystack of published sermons.  Ellison demonstrated the capacity of the searchable database with links to digitized sermons he will soon launch through the Marshall University’s Center for Sermon Studies.  Clearly this is a project that will require some crowdsourcing to begin to encompass all the possible sources, so look for the website to go live soon and look for a call to help expand the catalog.

James Laine’s plenary session on meta-religion and Christianity looked very interesting, but I skipped it in favor of a different kind of exercise in church history.  After my panel on Saturday morning, I heard about an ecumenical service for victims of the Armenian Genocide taking place at the St. Paul Cathedral.  I’ve been writing about the Armenian Genocide and the U.S. humanitarian response this spring as part of my dissertation, so I took the chance to go.  Archbishop Nienstedt  spoke, as did the leaders of a number of other Twin Cities denominations.  It was a moving service.   I got the chance to step back from my academic historian perspective and get a different look at this tragedy. The Cathedral is another of my favorite places to visit in the Twin Cities, so I took a few minutes to wander around and admire it again as well.


I won’t be attending the conference events today, so this marks the end of my first ASCH meeting.  I appreciated the welcome I received.  Getting to talk early twentieth century missions and religiously-influenced social movements with Christopher Schlect, Paul Putz and others gave me some new ideas for my research.  I also heard a little of some ongoing informal discussions about the future of ASCH.  The rapid rise of religious scholarship connected to other historical fields (such as the “religious turn” among foreign relations historians that helped bring me to this conference) means that ASCH is no longer as unique and might need to rethink its specific identity or mission.  However those discussions play out over the next months, I hope to attend another ASCH meeting soon.

The Author’s Corner with William D. Green

William D. Green is Associate Professor and Sabo Senior Fellow at Augsburg College. This interview is based on his book, A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007).

JF: What led you to write A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Minnesota?
WG: I was interested in understanding why so many leaders of the modern civil rights movement (Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, to name a few), had formative connections with Minnesota, which historically had one of the nation’s smallest communities of African Americans. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it also was in Minnesota where Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells joined other black leaders at the state capitol to debate a new agenda for civil rights; and residence of a black St. Paul attorney-Fredrick McGhee, chief counsel for Washington’s organization and close friend of DuBois-who first mentioned the need for the Niagara Movement, which, for some, was a precursor to the NAACP. I set out to determine whether this was mere coincidence or something else altogether, whether the “Land of Sky-Blue Waters” (a loose translation of the Dakota word from which the state derived its name) truly provided fertile ground for “radical” racial politics? To answer the question, I went back to what I believed was the beginning-1837. I soon realized that this book would become the first of more such efforts to come. 
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Peculiar Imbalance?
WG: Situated, during the antebellum years, in what then was the far northern corner of organized America, it was the political reform-minded leadership coming largely from upstate New York and New England states, who steered the territory away from the rigid caste system of “black codes” that had spread westward through midwest states. Even when the racism of Jacksonian America settled in Minnesota, it was possible for disenfranchised blacks, largely due to the patronage of political and business leaders, to gain access to economic opportunities that certain enfranchised whites–immigrants, in general; Irish Catholics in particular-did not have, thereby creating “a peculiar imbalance” among the residents of antebellum Minnesota. 
JF: Why do we need to read A Peculiar Imbalance?
WG: Though the book examines the evolution of political equality for black Minnesotans, it does so within a backdrop in which the conventional lines that designated race in antebellum America were blurred on the Minnesota frontier. Being “French” meant being racially-mixed, and a slave at Fort Snelling could become a man of property and respect as a resident of French-speaking Pig’s Eye (soon to be “St. Paul”). The race-infused lines that designated cultural identity could take peculiar twists and turns. Caucasians of Anglo-American descent residing in pre-territorial Minnesota were not considered “white” by the Anglo-Americans who later became their neighbors. Light-skinned men of African descent were designated “M” for “Mulatto” in the first census and “N” for “Negro” in the second. To be Catholic was to always be viewed as a foreigner. And a person’s political standing likewise shifted in time. An Indian was eligible to vote in 1851 “if he had adopted civilized habits” (meaning, at least, wearing pants), but lost the right in 1857 if he did not speak and read English. In contrast, the language requirement did not apply, for example, to German immigrants who could only speak in their native tongue. A Peculiar Imbalance navigates this little understood history of a territory with a racially- and culturally diverse population as it became a state that would, in sort order, become predominately white. And yet, this book examines ultimately what it means to be Minnesotan through a construct of race and the vision of a few determined leaders who would not countenance a society that would otherwise seek to stratify free men. 

This is, indeed, a Minnesota story. But it is as well a story about the American West, for the book sheds light on the impact of civilization as it envelopes a society already in transition, documenting the uneasy process by which one pluralistic community became part of a nation indivisible. A clear example of this is reflected in the Eliza Winston case, a fugitive slave set free in a Minneapolis courtroom. In the aftermath Minnesotans were poised to launch their own fratricidal conflict over the issue of slavery. But upon receiving news of Fort Sumter, just a few months later, they rushed to enlist thereby making their state the first to send volunteers into the federal army after Lincoln had issued his call to arms to preserve the Union. In this, fundamentally, A Peculiar Imbalance is an American story. 
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
WG: My interest in becoming an American historian began when I was very young. Born in Massachusetts, and growing up in Nashville and New Orleans, I was always mindful of history. My parents enabled my interest by taking me to different historical sites every year. Years later, during a time in my life that I called “my detour”-I was a lawyer at the time-I published my first article in history. It was after a long evening in the law library when I returned to my office to find a stack of reprints that had been left on my desk. At that moment, I knew I wanted to return to the academy to teach and research history. 
JF: What is your next project? 
WG: The sequel to this book, titled Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912, will be coming out this May. I am presently finishing another project that documents why four Lincoln Republicans left the campaign for black equality in the 1870s.
JF: Looking forward to seeing it! Thanks Bill.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Another Social Studies Debate is Brewing

This time in Minnesota

John Hinderaker supports John Fonte’s criticism of the new Minnesota social studies standards.  Michael Lynch, writing at his blog Past in the Present, responds to the whole mess.  Here is a taste of that response:

Lawyer and commentator John Hinderaker is upset because the new standards emphasize the different impacts that the American Revolution and the Civil War had on various groups.  He writes, “One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics.”

Well, certainly the Revolution and the Civil War did affect Americans generally, but it didn’t affect all of them in the same way.  If you were a white male living in Pennsylvania, the Revolution probably resulted in a greater exercise of political power.  If you were a white woman living in Massachusetts, you took on new roles as a republican mother and citizen.  If you were an enslaved black male who managed to hitch a ride with the British as they evacuated the seaboard cities, you got freedom.  And if you were an Indian of any gender living in the Ohio Valley, the Revolution wasn’t exactly a bonanza.  There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about the varied effects of important events.  Indeed, history teachers need to introduce the complexity involved in significant events like the Revolution.

Hinderaker also charges the standards with attributing “institutionalized racism” to big business.  But that isn’t exactly what the relevant passage says: “As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. ”  The standards are clearly dealing with a number of transformations in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the rise of big business was only one.
The rise of big business, the growth of cities, and immigration resulted in a number of changes in American life, including racism, class conflict, and reform efforts.  And, of course, shifts in immigration patterns and urban growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did result in institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the emergence of measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the restrictions on Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1917.

Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t with the standards, but with the reading comprehension of the people criticizing them. Or perhaps the problem is something else. Hinderaker writes that when he saw Joseph Brandt’s name on the standards’ list of “historically significant people” from the American Revolution, he had no idea who he was and had to look him up.  He notes only that Brandt was “a Mohawk Indian,” which is sort of like saying that Stonewall Jackson was “a guy from Virginia.”  Since Hinderaker had to look up the name of one of the most important figures of the Revolutionary frontier, might I suggest that he isn’t the person to be assessing standards for teaching history in Minnesota’s schools?

As I wrote several times (click link and scroll down) during the entire Texas social studies debate, citizenship is one reason, but not the primary reason, that history should be taught to school children.  I am not denying the fact that history can teach kids civic literacy.  We certainly want our kids to know the century in which the American Civil War took place or the name of the first president of the United States.  But history offers so much more.  It provides students with a new way of thinking about the world that allows them to see themselves as part of something bigger.  As my colleague Joseph Huffman says in this video, it adds an extra dimension to the way we understand our lives. 

History cultivates humility and empathy and intellectual hospitality–the kind of skills necessary for democracy to thrive.  While the choice of topics that student’s study is important, it would seem that these kinds of skills can be gleaned from learning how to interpret primary documents from any people group or movement in the American past.

The study of history is less about teaching kids what is good or bad about the United States and more about teaching them to function in a democratic society.

But I have said this all before and I am sure I will be saying it again.

A Tale of Two Minnesota Congressional Districts

In case you have not heard, Michelle Bachmann, an evangelical Christian, recently wrote a 16-page letter to her fellow Minnesota congressman, Keith Ellison, a Muslim, about her concerns over the supposed Muslim infiltration of the federal government.

Bachmann represents Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District.  Ellison represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congregational District.  Bachman is a self-proclaimed “teavangelical.”  Ellison is a Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is vice-chair of the Congressional Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equality Caucus. 

Over at Religion & Politics, Carleton College history professor Michael D. McNally explains how these neighboring Minnesota districts can elect such very different representatives to Washington.  Here is a taste:

Despite Michele Bachmann’s own strongly evangelical identity, her district is no more demographically evangelical than Ellison’s. In 2000, only 9 percent of Bachmann’s district was affiliated with an evangelical faith. Hennepin County, about half of which comprises Ellison’s district, also is 9 percent evangelical. There is a higher share of Roman Catholics in Bachmann’s district–30 percent compared with 23 percent in Ellison’s, and this is largely because the western counties of her district were historically settled by German Catholics. Lake Wobegon references to Minnesota Lutherans aside, the state has a rather significant Roman Catholic population, and certain regions have a deep tradition of Catholic identity. While a drive through that part of her district features no small number of graphic anti-abortion billboards, along with the flagship American Benedictine monasteries of St. John and St. Benedict, it also includes a Laotian Buddhist retreat center and the city of St. Cloud, which is home to a relatively large black population—around 12 percent in Census data—many of whom are of African, and especially Somali, descent.

If their respective districts offer far more muted contrasts than Bachmann and Ellison themselves suggest, it is certainly true that both members of Congress engage their religion and politics in highly contrasting ways, and that those contrasts are important to their electoral success in those districts. It may be by less handsome margins than her Fifth District counterpart, but Bachmann is reelected in light of, not in spite of, the identification of her religious identity and her political positions. It is hard to imagine her national name recognition, and the pride that can come with that star-power on the part of even those constituents who do not share fully her conservative Christian views.