Degrees of Freedom details past discrimination delivered with fist in a velvet glove
William D. Green’s Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912, is proof positive that history need not be boring and, in fact, can fascinate even non-scholars.
Green, author of A Peculiar Imbalance: The Rise and Fall of Racial Equality in Minnesota, 1837-1869, reflects in a fluid, almost conversational style on the realities and illusions of the dawn of racial progress in a state that has always occupied a singular place in the annals of African America, more so than is commonly known.
For instance, as a mecca for both freedmen and women moving north, it was where Black people founded St. Paul, originally named, Pig’s Eye. Before the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois conceived the Niagara Movement in the home of Black attorney Frederick McGhee.
When supremacists were at their most violent in persecuting African Americans, Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells debated a national agenda for civil rights at the state capitol. Minnesota has been a birthplace of progress even as it has been a stronghold of lynch-rope lawlessness.
Green masterfully documents in painstaking detail how its social and political climate evolved, including the advent of Minnesota “nice” style workings, which mouth unstinting support for Black suffrage while determinedly undermining it at the same time.
Degrees of Freedom, to be sure, is a book not of criticism but of candor, letting the record speak for itself. As stubbornly as America has refused to reveal an accurate picture of Black History, this, indeed, is an invaluably refreshing portrait. The author discussed his book with Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
MSR: I suppose comparisons between yourself and Mahmoud El-Kati are inevitable, so let’s get that out of the way. Do the two of you ever sit down and have a good chin-wag?
WG: Our paths have delightfully crossed many times. Notably, we were both on a talk show on KMOJ to talk about Black history, Professor El-Kati talking of national events while I focused on the political events of African Americans in Minnesota during the 19th century.
MSR: How did you come by your abiding passion for history?
WG: I was born in Massachusetts amid all that history out there and lived at Fisk University where my father was dean, just before the sit-ins began. As a child I got to meet such luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois, whose daughter was a student there, and Thurgood Marshall. Several notable writers, poets, composers and artists taught there at the time. But it wasn’t until years later when I realized how notable they were.
My interest in African American history probably began trying to understand that phase of my past. When we moved to New Orleans, my mother’s home, my interest in history only intensified. Throughout my youth my parents indulged my interest, seeing to it that our family vacations included visits to historical sites. You could say that they fanned my passion.
MSR: From research to completion, how long did this book take and how did you find all that exhaustive information?
WG: This will sound strange, but it took perhaps two years of work before I realized what the book was really about. Then, when I had more clarity, it took another three years to follow new leads, go down a lot of dead ends, study material often overlooked or dismissed, and try finding the words to capture a dynamic that was hidden in nuance.
This story, after all, wasn’t about burning crosses and white robes, but about denying equal opportunity with a paternalistic smile and exercising discrimination with a fist in a velvet glove. The lens through which I saw that history required much adjustment and patience.
MSR: Do you find the Black press as source of both advocacy and information as vital as it was back in those days?
WG: Absolutely. The Black press does what few Black leaders have the resource and time to do — tell the full arc of a story, provide precious context, educate.
MSR: You note that Black women’s history in this state is “layered and complex and reflects experiences uniquely saddled by sexism, racism and classism. Thus it deserves its own treatment at another time.” Expound on that, please?
WG: Between 1850 and 1854, the most notable African American woman who advanced the cause of freedom was Adeline Taylor of St. Paul who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad on the branch that ran between Galena and St. Paul. Emily Gray of St. Anthony, who interestingly enough named her first born (the first black child to be born in the city that would become the east bank of Minneapolis) Toussaint L’Ouverture Gray, led a posse in 1860 to free a slave woman name Eliza Winston.
More would follow this tradition following the Civil War, most notably Nellie Francis (originally from Nashville), who at the end of the century organized a Black woman suffrage organization named Everywoman Suffrage Association and would lobby the state legislature in 1921 to make lynching a crime in response to the lynching of three Black men in Duluth. And Lena Smith, the first Black woman in Minnesota to become a lawyer, challenged discrimination in housing and became president of the Minneapolis Chapter of the NAACP.
And of course, everyone knows about Nellie Stone Johnson, one of the founders of the DFL and champion of civil rights and labor equity. These women, and more, I plan to feature in a forthcoming project.
MSR: What comes next?
WG: I’ve got three projects lined up — a history of Black women activists in the 19th and early 20th century; “portraits” of White Minnesotan men who participated in Black political advancement [and] who abandoned the campaign for full opportunity (the Minnesota-side of what happened nationally during the period of Reconstruction); and Black Minnesota history during the Progressive Era. I tend to do preliminary work on a couple projects at a time until one or the other begins to take form.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.