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Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865–1912

William D. Green
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 384
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    Degrees of Freedom
    Book Description:

    He had just given a rousing speech to a crammed assembly in St. Paul, but Frederick Douglass, confidant to the Great Emancipator himself and conscience of the Republican Party, was denied a hotel room because he was black. This was Minnesota in 1873, four years after the state had approved black suffrage-a state where "freedom" meant being unshackled from chains but not social restrictions, where "equality" meant access to the ballot but not to a hotel or restaurant downtown.

    Spanning the half century after the Civil War,Degrees of Freedomdraws a rare picture of black experience in a northern state of this period and of the nature of black discontent and action within a predominantly white, ostensibly progressive society. William D. Green brings to light a full cast of little-known historical characters among the black men and women who moved to Minnesota following the Fifteenth Amendment; worked as farmhands and laborers; built communities (such as Pig's Eye Landing, later renamed St. Paul), businesses, and a newspaper (theWestern Appeal); and embodied the slow but inexorable advancement of race relations in the state over time. Within this absorbing, often surprising, narrative we meet "ordinary" citizens, like former slave and early settler Jim Thompson and black barbers catering to a white clientele, but also outsize figures of national stature, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, all of whom championed civil rights in Minnesota. And we see how, in a state where racial prejudice and oppression wore a liberal mask, black settlers and entrepreneurs, politicians, and activists maneuvered within a restricted political arena to bring about real and lasting change.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4442-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xx)

    • 1 When America Came to St. Paul
      (pp. 3-11)

      Jim Thompson, a former slave who had lived in Minnesota for more than a decade and one of the first residents and a respected member of the small French-speaking community that would soon be called St. Paul, lived in a cabin near the Mississippi River. It was here, on the evening of January 25, 1841, that a man named Jean-Baptiste Deniger, in the company of a ten-year-old mixed blood girl named Ursula Labissoniere, stopped to warm up against the winter’s chill. Deniger was drunk and the girl looked afraid of him. Sensing Thompson’s suspicion, Deniger left, speeding away in the...

    • 2 Maurice Jernigan Takes a Stand
      (pp. 12-41)

      During the nineteenth century, if a black man had enriched himself as a barber from a thriving business located in the city’s best neighborhood and serving a clientele comprised of the city’s social, political, and financial elite, and he wanted to improve the welfare of African Americans, he had to carefully straddle the thorny polarity of competing interests. Against the odds of racial prejudice he had acquired the American dream—something few white native-born or immigrant men could say—by securing the patronage of white men of influence whose community standing built firmly a platform of status quo. In order...

    • 3 On Becoming a Good Republican
      (pp. 42-69)

      Three years after the first failed campaign for black suffrage, voters did what had never occurred in any state of the Union at any time of its history—they extended the right to vote to the black men of Minnesota. On January 1, 1869, virtually every major Republican officeholder celebrated with the newly formed Colored Citizens of the state. This was a time for great rejoicing, as the keynoters at its convention noted: the ballot had removed all obstacles, and with very hard work, the opportunities were limitless. But already there had been signs that racism was resilient in Republican...

    • 4 The Sons of Freedom
      (pp. 70-98)

      The success of the black suffrage campaign and the January 1 celebration that showed the value that Minnesota’s most prominent leaders placed on black citizenship filled African Americans with optimism in confronting the immense challenges their race faced. Still, even with the ballot their small numbers undercut their ability to leverage the potential of a black voting bloc into real political power. Indeed, the ballot alone could not help them attain full opportunity. As Richard Kluger wrote about the national condition of African Americans, “[T]he black man was clearly going to need help to make his freedom a fact as...


    • 5 Mr. Douglass and the Civilizable Characteristics of the Colored Race
      (pp. 101-126)

      At the Convention of Colored Citizens of Minnesota in 1869 Ignatius Donnelly, paying tribute to the African Americans seated before him, grandly pronounced that their race was superior to other racial minorities simply because, unlike the other groups, they had not perished after having a “close and intimate contact with the white race.” Neither the Indian nor the Finnic race had these traits, he insisted, “[b]ecause [they did] not have the civilizable characteristics of the colored race.”¹ This was a statement about black potential, that with training and education, and a rigorous commitment to industry, sobriety, and good citizenship, the...

    • 6 Senate Bill No. 181
      (pp. 127-149)

      It was a peculiar thing. Many Republicans in the North were never happy with the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Since 1870, when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner first introduced the bill, his Republican colleagues viewed the measure as a political liability. Their white constituents would never countenance a federal law that affronted their racial sensibilities by requiring them to serve blacks demanding service in a white-owned restaurant or a seat next to white customers. By the mid-1870s, as national discontent with President Grant mounted to such a level that Republican power over the federal government was threatened, they wanted little...

    • 7 A Certain Class of Citizens
      (pp. 150-176)

      It is not known what Republican leaders thought of the flirtations of Adams, Lyles, and Loomis. But they could afford to be tolerant, considering the returns in 1884 that went overwhelmingly for their party. The black population had grown, but not so much that their demands would be a significant concern, for they were hardly sizable enough to turn an election. The Republicans did have concerns, not because Grover Cleveland was president but about third-party politics, which had nipped at the party’s heels throughout the 1870s. Throughout the 1880s, disgruntled farmers were re-formng into a more intense effort in the...

    • 8 Professor Washington, Leader of the Race
      (pp. 177-191)

      William Hazel’s fundamental complaint against the league was the lack of sound leadership. It did not aggressively confront discrimination in St. Paul. Instead, it frittered away the meager funds that humble people donated on hopeless lawsuits in other states where the law was stacked against a positive ruling. That money could have been spent in St. Paul. The league’s goals were good, but its methods were bankrupt, and because its members talked and socialized with each other, they were insular and stale, preferring their self-satisfied status of “community leader” without a community larger than themselves. They relied unhealthily on white...

    • 9 The Renaissance of the Cakewalk
      (pp. 192-210)

      The readers of theAppealwere familiar with Dr. Booker T. Washington before most Americans were. The newspaper had dedicated itself to showcasing the achievements of African Americans during a time when few in the nation saw any reason to take note. Washington’s work at Tuskegee—training the untrained black man and woman—was indeed noteworthy. But the fact, as the story line went, that even white Southern men who had terrorized them saw these trained former slaves as useful to the Southern economy elevated the work at Tuskegee to a new level of respect. Washington’s was indeed a front-page...


    • 10 Wheaton and McGhee: A Tale of Two Leaders
      (pp. 213-229)

      It would be wrong to conclude that Fredrick McGhee, in his 1899 defense of the cakewalk, intended to demean his own race. That the celebration included the cakewalk at all revealed a much more complex dynamic that reflected the shifted grounding of racial identity during this period among the black middle class of the Twin Cities. Beyond a doubt, McGhee was a proud black man who demanded respect and the opportunity to fully develop his gifts, of which he had many. He was, in other words, the epitome of a “race man.” To be sure, by the 1890s he had...

    • 11 The Election of J. Frank Wheaton
      (pp. 230-250)

      This was a time when McGhee, Adams, and other St. Paul community leaders replaced one organization with another in a futile attempt to be politically relevant. Nothing they did attracted votes. Parochial in their approach, they had come to rely on the belief that clubs and rhetoric shaped the political landscape. Without a significant voting bloc, the opportunity to succeed in electoral politics required a different approach that in turn required the black man to understand the ways of the white political establishment. Wheaton’s approach—the only approach to date that worked—could only accomplish this by his innocuously working...

    • 12 A Call to Action
      (pp. 251-263)

      At the end of the day, it was one thing to pass civil-rights laws but quite another to provide moral force to fully engage the stultifying element in Minnesota society that allowed otherwise decent white men to grab a rope and take the law into their own hands. This was the issue that confronted Minnesota even as it looked on with horror at racial violence being waged against the Southern black man. The black population by the end of the decade, not even 1 percent of the total population of the state, made it understandably easy for white policy makers,...

    • 13 A Defining Moment for McGhee
      (pp. 264-279)

      In 1900, the agenda of Minnesota’s race men had evolved into Booker T. Washington’s as they accommodated themselves to the discriminatory practices of the Metropolitan Hotel and Southerners’ morbid infatuation with the practice of lynching and Northerners’ prurient flirtation with the same practice. A full thirty-five years after the end of the Civil War, black citizens were imperiled in virtually every sphere of American society. What now mattered most was advancing the great experiment in racial advancement as the Wizard of Tuskegee envisioned it, by demonstrating to friendly whites how intelligent African Americans were united in this hollow venture. In...

    • 14 After St. Paul, Niagara
      (pp. 280-292)

      The convention in St. Paul was ultimately not all that it was intended to be: a spectacular showcase of black life in the Twin Cities and the special relationship that existed between African Americans, especially their social and political elite, and the state’s white political and business establishment. The state’s governmental leaders had opened the doors to the senate chamber for black men and women to discuss the new civil-rights agenda and it was Minnesota’s business leaders who made the opulent festivities possible. But still it all went wrong. Booker T. Washington had exposed his imperial temperament and insistence on...

    • 15 The Legacy
      (pp. 293-308)

      But it would be a long while before America was truly “new,” and the twenty-nine men who founded the Niagara Movement had no illusions about the work that lay ahead of them. They faced the full weight of racial oppression and Washington’s Tuskegee machine, as well as skepticism from most middle-class African Americans in Minnesota who questioned whether such a radical notion of demanding full and equal rights through complete integration was such a good idea. The paradox was that while they, as many in Minnesota’s black middle class, could accept for themselves the Niagarite agenda—indeed, embrace the movement’s...

    (pp. 309-314)

    In 1912, with an affiliate in place, McGhee and physician Valdo Turner went as delegates to the national NAACP convention in Chicago that May, stopping briefly in Milwaukee, where McGhee spoke against lynching before a Catholic gathering. At the convention McGhee was elected to the national committee.¹ When they returned, they knew that they had a lot of work ahead of them, for the struggle for civil rights was being waged everywhere, including in Minnesota, not just in the South. Even though African Americans could ride in first class on Minnesota trains, hotels and restaurants continued to discriminate and black...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 315-350)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 351-368)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 369-369)