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