The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota, 1860–1876
Author: William D. Green
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019
512 pages; hardcover/cloth/jacket; 1 b&w photo; $34.95
Reviewed by Anne Cowie
With the Union vanquishing the Confederacy in the Civil War and slavery in Southern states outlawed, African Americans would have been reasonable in hoping that discrimination based on race would be eliminated in the United States. Bill Green, Augsburg University history professor and author, shows us why, during the complex period of Reconstruction, this did not occur in Minnesota. He thoughtfully explores this issue by examining the lives of four Minnesotans who exemplified the ambivalent nature of white Americans toward the concept of true racial equality.
Morton Wilkinson, Minnesota’s first Republican senator in Washington and in line with the abolitionists, argued for black enfranchisement in Minnesota during the Civil War. Yet he opposed government intervention to support black migration and landownership in the Northern states. In his unqualified support for the Homestead Act of 1862, he also acquiesced in removal of the Dakota and Winnebago in favor of white immigrants from Europe, who would farm the newly offered land. And he later redirected his efforts to populist arguments against business monopolies, abandoning his vocal support of antiracist policies.
Thomas Montgomery was an Irish American from Le Sueur who led a company of African American soldiers in the Union army. Montgomery recognized the bravery of his men and worked to gain them equal treatment while they served their country. At the same time, he felt no compunction about sending the wife of one of his soldiers as a servant to help Montgomery’s aging mother in Minnesota farm country. The woman was expected without question to undertake an uncertain journey of many miles and work for long-delayed pay, conditions that would not have been required of a white woman in her position.
David Merrill, a St. Paul business leader, assisted in the founding and support of Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul’s first African American congregation. The group’s real founder, Robert Hickman, a former slave, was not initially allowed ordination in the Baptist church, despite his reputation as a charismatic leader. Merrill, a trustee of the white First Baptist Church, had to work behind the scenes to attract funding for the black congregation, which finally received its own home in 1871 when a church building in St. Anthony was taken down and reassembled at 12th and Cedar Streets.
Sarah Stearns, the wife of an early mayor of Rochester, made impassioned pleas to support women’s suffrage in Minnesota. As some other feminists of her time, Stearns used the previous endorsement of black suffrage primarily as a wedge to advocate for her goal of providing votes for women. She finally succeeded in gaining some traction in 1875 when the Minnesota legislature granted women the right to vote—but only in school board elections.
This book is long. To an average reader, it may seem overly long, and its exploration of four personalities dips in and out of the historical current, so that chronological continuity may appear lacking. Nonetheless, the broader theme is sound and, indeed, required by the difficult issues presented.
Through his character studies, Green accurately assesses the mindset of most white Minnesotans of the time. He quotes Wilkinson, who asserted that with the abolition of slavery in the South, “We have done our part.” Green notes the prevailing theory that “[R]acism was transitory and it would correct itself in time.”
This theory proved wrong. The reader discovers that, yes, in Minnesota, a group of white laborers threatened to riot in 1863 when the preacher Hickman wanted to land his boat carrying fugitive slaves at the Lower Landing. And that twelve years later, two hotel clerks refused accommodation to Frederick Douglass when he visited St. Paul. As Green points out, the work was far from finished.
Anne Cowie, who recently retired as a career law clerk with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, is chair of the Ramsey County Historical Society Editorial Board.