S.4 E.7: “Degrees of Freedom”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews lawyer, historian, and Gustavus alum William Green.
Posted on October 5th, 2020 by

Educator, lawyer, professor of history, award-winning author, and Gustavus graduate William Green ’72 talks about coming to Gustavus from New Orleans as an African American student in 1968, his time at the College, the social and political history of Black Minnesotans in the 19th and early-20th centuries (including the little-known story of enslaved woman Eliza Winston’s emancipation), and how that history informs Black-white relations in Minnesota today.

Season 4, Episode 7: “Degrees of Freedom”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

For many people, Minnesota is synonymous with Scandinavian American, which is to say whiteness. Yet, African Americans have a long, important, and rich history in this state. No one knows this history better than my guest today, educator, historian, and author, William, Bill Green. Bill, I am proud to say, graduated Gustavus in 1972 with a degree in history. He then went on to earn a PhD in education and later a JD from the University of Minnesota. A professor of history at Augsburg, here in Minneapolis, since 1991, Bill is the author of three essential books on the history of black Minnesotans and their struggle for civil rights.

A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall And Rise Of Racial Equality In Minnesota 1837-1869, Degrees Of Freedom: The Origins Of Civil Rights in Minnesota 1865-1912, and most recently, The Children Of Lincoln: White Paternalism And The Limits Of Black Opportunity In Minnesota 1860-1876. The last two garnered Bill the Hognander Minnesota History Award in 2016 and 2020 and Bill has yet another book forthcoming this coming January on the African American woman activist, Nellie Francis. In addition to his teaching and scholarly writing, Bill has long been extensively involved in the community around issues of education especially, serving for example, on the Minneapolis school board, which he chaired and as superintendent of Minneapolis public schools.

Gustavus has recognized Bill’s outstanding professional achievement with a distinguished alumni citation. Indeed, he embodies what Learning for Life at Gustavus is all about and especially in light of recent events in Minneapolis, I’ve been looking forward to speaking with him about his path to Gustavus and the history of black Minnesotans. Welcome Bill, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

William Green:

Thank you very much for having me.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Let’s start with you and your story. Where’d you grow up and how did you find your way to Gustavus and the history major?

William Green:

Well, though I was born in Massachusetts, I grew up in the South, for maybe throughout the 1950s we were in Nashville, my dad was dean at Fisk University.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow.

William Green:

Yeah and we left Nashville just as the sit-ins were heating up. Some of those students were my father’s students so there’s a personal connection there and I didn’t really understand what they were doing until I began to teach this subject, which is interesting. Then we moved to New Orleans, which is where I consider home, that’s my mother’s home basically. From there, I came to Minnesota. My folks would ask all the time, “Where do you want to go to school? Where do you want to go to college?” Of course, I didn’t really think much about it when I was in high school, I had my thoughts elsewhere, but to get them off my case, I said, “Well I think I want to study abroad.” I thought that would impress them. So they said, “Okay,” and they sent me to Minnesota, so that’s [inaudible 00:03:30] Minnesota. I ended up at Gustavus, St. Peter and found it to be serendipitous because I found myself really enjoying the experience, I learned a lot about myself at the college.

Greg Kaster:

Did your parents know, did they know specifically about Gustavus? Or did you do some research on Minnesota schools and decide Gustavus was it?

William Green:

Well neither, actually. My father a fairly prominent person in black New Orleans, in the political community, and social community, both of my parents were very much engaged, my mother was a school teacher and she was very much involved with the work of the League of Women Voters. In the mid to late ’60s, President Carlson of Gustavus-

Greg Kaster:

Right, Edgar Carlson, yeah.

William Green:

Right, had decided he wanted to bring a little bit of the real world to the campus. He thought that the students of Gustavus were sheltered and they were for all intents and purposes, housed as they were 90 miles west of the twin cities. So he sent his lieutenants all over the South and Chicago and to New York to try to enlist African American students to come to Minnesota. In one such trip, they knew that dad was one of the people that they should contact when they came to New Orleans at least and my dad was impressed. We hadn’t thought of Gustavus up to that point and I think for a long time, he thought that it was a Catholic and he was [inaudible 00:05:20] minister, so there were some issues there. But he was very impressed with the people he met who represented the college and he also thought it would be a safe place for me to go, I was a young man and kind of frisky and how could you get in trouble in St. Peter, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

William Green:

So one thing led to another but they didn’t know much about Gustavus until maybe the summer before [crosstalk 00:05:51].

Greg Kaster:

That initiative by Edgar Carlson is really quite interesting and I think there’s an article about it that I read by a historian and also, I want to interview, I haven’t yet, but for the podcast, interview people like Bruce Gray and Owen Samuelson, I don’t know if they were the ones your dad met-

William Green:

[crosstalk 00:06:07].

Greg Kaster:

… but they were certainly two of the people … Yeah, two of the people doing, let’s call it, recruiting, traveling around the South, two white guys and speaking with African American educators and prospective students. That’s really interesting.

William Green:

Well, I remember Bruce to be an amazing contact, I mean he and my father hit it off immediately and for the next four years of my time at Gustavus, Bruce was always that person who I could connect with if issues arose, and they did on occasion, but he was very good, I thought, in providing some sort of stewardship for both the college and for the American Amercian students who were coming through.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I heard a lot about his work in that area from other African American alums. So you’ve anticipated where I wanted to go next, say a little bit more about what it was like to be on the Gustavus campus as an African American student coming from New Orleans, in the ’70s which was … I mean, contrary to what some people might think, there was a lot of stuff happening in the 1970s around race.

William Green:

Well actually, I started in ’68, days of rage.

Greg Kaster:

Oh ’68, man yeah, because you graduated in ’72, right, sorry. That’s right, that’s what I meant, yeah. You were right there.

William Green:

Yeah and a lot of does did not feel that St. Peter was the real world because many of us came from areas where … larger cities where racial issues were much more dynamic. We knew coming to a place like Gustavus that in a strange way, we would be specimens in effect. We were to [inaudible 00:07:57] and represent and embody the larger world so that students could gawk at us for example. In some instances, that was something that we could exploit, in other instances, it was very alienating but it was anything but making one feel at home.

This is where the history department really worked for me because I got to know early on, professors like Fred Brown and I love Fred and Wiefold, they were just amazing, and I’ve spent a-

Greg Kaster:

John Wiefold and Fred Brown, yeah. Both of whom I think went on to be college presidents.

William Green:

That’s correct, that’s correct. Brown, who was himself … I think he may have considered himself an outsider, he wasn’t Swedish, he wasn’t Scandinavian, he was from the middle world, so to speak, in Iowa and a cowboy. He could relate, I think, or at least we felt that he could relate to us in the way that most of the other professors couldn’t and so I found myself finding a home. He made his home our home, in effect. So he was one of the reasons why we were able to, at least I was able to, get over some of the alienation, homesickness, that I think is inevitable.

Greg Kaster:

Right, did you come to Gustavus with an interest in history? Or how did you find your way to the history major?

William Green:

Well I guessed I had the bug when I was a kid. Growing up, having a connection with Massachusets and growing up in Nashville, there’s a lot of history there to begin with and my father always made it a point … we had the good fortune of being able to travel for vacations and dad always enabled me in my interests in history. We would stop by places of historical note and I don’t know that he was terribly interested in it but it he was interested in it for me. He would see to it that I got these souvenirs and that I would get these maps and things. So it whetted my appetite and of course growing up in New Orleans, living in New Orleans, which is history personified, it just amplified that interest. I tended to always think about history from a literary perspective and I loved the historical dynamic, the human interplay that goes on in history and it actually … I saw it through when I graduated and went into law strangely enough. My very first publication was a law review article on a slave trial that occurred in Minneapolis in 1860, that was the very first piece that I actually wrote in history.

It brought me back to history, I had left, graduating from college had a choice of going into history per se or going into ed psych, which was my father’s area, and I went the latter way, but wound my way through that into law and then into history, a circuitous route. That route was by way of writing the article on the slave trial.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I want to talk about that trial a little bit because most people don’t know anything about that. I only learned about that actually in a seminar I did a couple of years ago, it was by a historian, Paul Finkelman, which led me to your article by the way. Before we get to that, I do want to comment on … You just touched on this on your interests in the human dynamic in history. I mean, that comes across in your writing in the books especially, which are … I mean, it’s kind of unfair to say they’re organized around people’s stories, but in a way they are.

I wonder, before we get to the article, if we could a little bit about the books and some of the figures in those books. That’s impossible for you to summarize three books here and the fourth that’s coming, but maybe tell us about some of the important African Americans you’ve looked at in your research and writing in those books.

William Green:

Well, I never knew that there was a black chapter in Minnesota history, first of all. The canon, if anything, would only refer to Dred Scott and nothing else and if you look closely at the footnotes in [Falwell 00:13:06] for example, there’s only one reference to the slave trial and it was touched on and left, almost as if the issue of race was an indiscretion on the part of historian and the scholar. So I would have otherwise followed suit and not paid attention to that history, were it not for the fact that … and this gets me back to New Orleans, I knew, I was one of the few kids, if not the only kid in my group, who knew who Hubert Humphrey was, who knew who Fritz Mondale was and Don Fraser, and it’s because they were setting a national policy of civil rights, at least within Congress and my dad being involved, my mother being involved, their names were bandied about around the dinner table.

So I’m asking myself, “Where do these guys come from? What is it about Minnesota that brought these guys to the nation? And how is that possible in a state where there are no black people and no apparent consciousness of black, what’s that all about?” So I began to look at the logic more closely and began to realize that in order, first of all, to know that that question existed, said something about the culture here, the notion of niceness and about the culture of not wanting to be disagreeable. Where does the notion of exceptionalism come from, when there’s no history to base it on.

So there are all sorts of questions that were un-nice questions, so to speak, that drew me in. One of the jobs I had, was as a janitor in a print shop and one night, I was working in the office of a foreman, or we called her forelady, and she’s about maybe four or five inches tall and she had one eyebrow and she was intimidating, she scared the bejeezus out, but I was drawn to her because I’d never seen a Minnesota woman who had never been any place else but Minnesota with such dark skin. She was white and she had a name like [Wojack 00:15:42], that’s not a black name, that’s not a Creole name, so I mean, what was this all about? I finally got up the nerve to ask her, “Where’d your skin come from?” I think I was much more diplomatic than that but I asked her, “Who are you? Where’d you come from? What’s your background?” I saw for the first time, vulnerability. That stunned me because she still felt the wounds of being French and that’s what she told me.

She grew up along the river, Bohemian Flats, and she talked about poverty, but she also talked about the racism against the French Canadians and I had never seen that because coming from New Orleans, being French was what everybody was and embraced but up here, that was not the case and so I began to get a very interesting and nuanced sense of race in Minnesota, which also drew me into the subject. Race isn’t just about Africa, although it is an element, but it is about being non-Northern European, having the Indian blood, being Catholic, still being foreign even though the French speakers were born and raised here. That the Yankees coming in from the East were the foreigners but they were the ones who had the power to decide, who’s an outsider and who’s an insider.

So for me, Minnesota became an incredible laboratory for understanding the nature of race and power and identity, even as far back as the 19th century. I began to wonder that the answer to my question about what is it about Minnesota that would give us Fritz Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, may have some connection with the Wojack story of the 19th century. I’m still examining that but it really yielded a lot of very interesting issues that I didn’t expect and in a weird way, I felt like I had come home, or into the Mississippi River from New Orleans and yet, these issues are just as ripe here. Anyway.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all fascinating, I mean, that’s extremely interesting, how you came to black history in Minnesota and you’re reminding me too, I think I’ve said this in some other podcast, when I first came to Gustavus, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I had a beard admittedly, and my hair was a little longer and thicker, more of it, but I’ll never forget a student, a Gustavus student, a white student, saying to me quote, “You are so dark, where do you come from?” End quote. As they might say here, “Okay, then.” I guess I’m in Minnesota now and that sense of … Go ahead, yeah, go ahead.

William Green:

Well, a thing about that is that when I first came to Gustavus, it was said, I’m sure it was said tongue in cheek, but it was said that before my class arrived in ’68, the only people of color were the Norwegians.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah, I’ve heard that. Right, exactly. It’s incredible and you said the word exceptionalism a few minutes ago by the way, which I was so happy to hear, because I’ve long talked about and felt about this, this powerful sense that Minnesotans have of their own exceptionalism, or their state’s exceptionalism. I never encountered that before growing up in … I grew up in Illinois, as I’ve said. Now, we can get back to that and we talked a bit more about history and George Floyd, but so you found yourself researching black history, primarily in the 19th century into the early 20th century and your first book was called Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall And Rise Of Racial Equality. What do you mean by that? Peculiar imbalance and fall and rise?

William Green:

Well, I became interested in the 1850s in St. Paul, where African Americans represented most of the socioeconomic classes, there were blacks who actually owned businesses and whatnot and they lived in neighborhoods where the power elite lived as neighbors, as opposed to as servants, and they for all intents and purposes, were equal to anybody who lived in the city of a certain, upper middle class status. The only thing was that they were African Americans and by that and for that, they were denied the right to vote, they couldn’t participate.

There’s a story I like to refer to, where Brunson, Benjamin Brunson, who was a lawyer from the East, has a bill in his satchel as he was leaving to go to the legislature in 1849, the bill will determine who has a right to vote and it expressly excludes all people who are not white men of 20, 21 years or more. Well, this excludes his next-door neighbor, who he grew up with. This excludes the man, Jim Thompson, who his father had purchased and then freed. This excludes the same person, Jim Thompson, who owned property, a lot of property and had helped a lot of people who would become the movers of Minnesota get started, this would exclude him. I was interested in knowing why is it he couldn’t get the right to vote, even though that legislation was drafted by a friend of his, virtual family member of his. What’s the nature of that? But adds to the peculiar imbalance here is the fact that the most denigrated white population, if you want to call them white, were the Irish Catholics.

Greg Kaster:

Sure, the Irish, yeah.

William Green:

So they could vote but they were denied opportunities of economic development. They were generally relegated to the lowest socioeconomic rungs of the ladder. You look at the census of 1850 and the census of 1860 and you could see where they clearly identified where people lived, but also in most censuses, the property that they possessed, and you could see how other white people, other immigrants, other Anglos, would come into the city and within a short period of time, apparently be able to move up, acquire property, develop a skill, become a major part of society, but the Irish Catholics, pretty much were relegated generally to the same ghettos so to speak, of poverty, that they were when they arrived in the early 1850s. So you had one class of people who could vote, but weren’t permitted because of the racism against the Irish Catholics, to acquire economic power. Some did, clearly there were exceptions, but that struck me as interesting.

So you have blacks on one hand, who could own businesses and make something of themselves economically speaking, and had relationship, but they couldn’t vote, as opposed to the Irish Catholics, who were denigrated by the Yankees, who seemed to embrace the African Americans as a preferred minority. Then you have on the third hand, the Native Americans, who as long as they stayed out of the city, away from the seat of power, as long as they didn’t coalesce and unify their voice, so to speak, as long as they stayed separate from each other, the Dakota and the Ojibwe on one hand, the Metis oftentimes were a people in between, they could be given the right to vote, but nothing else and their right to vote could be denied them and was denied them because the same Native Americans who could vote in 1851 were denied that right to vote unless they could speak English, they could read and write English, this is 1857.

That denial occurred because their patrons in the Democratic Party denied them of that. So we’re looking at three different races in effect, the black, African Americans, the Irish Catholics and the Native Americans collectively, who were treated differently in terms of being a member of this society, of having political status in this society, in terms of having access to economic development of society. Now, they would evolve into a different type of construct when you get into the 1860s and 1870s.

Greg Kaster:

How do you explain that difference? I mean, what explains that? That’s fascinating, where African Americans, fine, own a business, be successful, but you can’t vote. What, it took three attempts, is that right? I think you write, for black men to get the right to vote in Minnesota?

William Green:

Yeah, that would happen after the Civil War.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, what explains that? What explains why that right is extended to Irish American men, but not African Amercian men?

William Green:

Well in the 1840s and 1850s, America was still very Jacksonian in terms of politics and a lot of the power brokers of Minnesota were from the East, bringing with them the biases of the East. Most of the states, I think virtually all of the states, with the exception of some of the New England states, denied African Americans the right to vote. In some states, there was never even that opportunity to have a right to vote, but in most states by the end of Jacksonian era, if not all of them, black men who once may have had the right to vote, especially if they had enough property, were denied it. That bias from the East and the Midwest, and from the South but mainly from the East and the Midwest, that bias came with the settlers who moved to Minnesota.

So it wasn’t, in the case of Brunson, a personal rejection of Jim Thompson, it was just how things happen. I mean, Thompson himself, a black man, did not seem to have any grievance against the fact that he did not have the right to vote, even though it became increasingly important. In 1849, the right to vote didn’t matter as much, because you knew people and because it was frontier for all intents and purposes, that you can create your own relationships and go out into the woods and develop your own wealth. It isn’t until a town becomes much more crowded, competition makes voting that much more urgent and it’s crowded increasingly by people who are bringing the bias, the racism from the East.

As far as the Irish Catholics are concerned, well you know, America hated the Irish Catholics but the Irish Catholic community in Minnesota is growing, as it did in New York and Philadelphia with the migration in 1840, the famine and those kinds of elements, compelling people to move west. But in Minnesota at least, the infrastructure that you see in New York that could tamp down that Irish population did not exist as readily. You have the bias of the Yankees against the Irish Catholics, but you didn’t have the numbers to actually repress them. The Irish Catholics in Minnesota were able to acquire political numbers because they had the right to vote, but they could amass political power because their numbers were increasing and the Yankees did not have the physical and economic power to repress the growth of the Irish Catholics. So they were able to become the St. Paul that we know and love today, you know?

Greg Kaster:

Right. That point about the bias, I mean, you’re reminding me and we should tell our listeners something of it, for example I’m thinking of New York State, as you mentioned, as in some places were African American men had been voting, as the right to vote is extended to all white men, whether they own property or not, it’s taken away from black men in New York, I mean specifically. The constitution is re-written to disenfranchise black men by basically making the poverty requirement so high that most black men can’t meet it. So, that’s interesting.

The other thing I like about your work, this reminds me, is as part of this recent focus on race in the North, and slavery as well, that these are not just Southern phenomena, we need to pay attention to what was happening in the North as well and so, picking up the story from there, I mean the next book, Degrees Of Freedom, so what happens in the late 19th century? You start that book at the end of the Civil War, degrees of freedom implies some progress?

William Green:

Yeah, yeah, Degrees Of Freedom really looks at … When you look at the survey of American history and you get into that period, the post-war years, which we call reconstruction for all interest and purpose, reconstruction tends to be in reference to the South. It tends to be about occupation. It tends to be about the growth and spread of white supremacy in the South and there’s very little discussion dealing with what’s happening in the North, for example, which is stunning to me because the North is going through a major change as well, in part because of the Civil War. We have increased industrialization, you have an increased immigration, you have increased agitation for women’s suffrage and you have the possibility, at least in larger cities in the North, where you have a growing black population and there are other factors as well going on, and policy makers don’t really think in terms of how do we adjust America to this new America? In a sense, reconstruction comes to mean how do we make things as we were. When you start having a mindset of trying to go back to normally, you’ve got more tensions and that’s what we see happen in the North.

Degrees Of Freedom was an example of that tension in a microcosm. African Americans received the right to vote, they were free and they were made citizens, 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were ratified but then in 1870, the sense of any more duty that the children of Lincoln, I’m talking about the children of Lincoln, really looking at the degrees of freedom, any more responsibility that the quote, “good guys” had to the freed men and women, was satisfied, “We have done our part.” So as a result, the African American, newly enfranchised, was left to try to make it without any more assistance from their colleagues, from their white friends. So we have the right to vote, we’re free, but we don’t have the access to opportunity. That’s [inaudible 00:32:28] degrees of freedom come from and the foot, proverbial foot, is taken off the gas, where the friends of black people felt it’s really now incumbent upon blacks to deal with racism, because racism which denies you the right to actually purchase a farm, even though you may have the money to buy one, is no different than say, what a white businessman would say if he has a downfall economically. For example, it was considered you’re a good Republican if you’re able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Greg Kaster:

Right, the free labor ideal, yeah, self-made man.

William Green:

Exactly, but the African American is dealing with the same, call it racism. If you have the money to purchase a farm, you still have to be able to find a seller who will sell it to you. Or, if you’re looking to acquire a skill, chances are the only one who can impart those skills to you, through an apprenticeship, is a white person who’s reserving that spot for a cousin of his, or a black child is discriminated in the school, or you can’t purchase a house in the city because of the race but all of that was not considered the responsibility of the friends of African Americans to deal with.

Now, here’s the other side of that Greg. The African Americans now, who had been freed, are understandably and rightfully grateful to their white patrons but they also understand that in this particular world, to ask for help is proof positive that you’re not really up to the task of being free and so African Americans at that time, tended not to agitate against their friends because they’re basically showing themselves to be ungrateful and that’s the trick that happens in degrees of freedom.

Greg Kaster:

That’s another way in which white paternalism, or that relationship of client patron is limiting.

William Green:

Exactly, exactly.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead, sorry.

William Green:

So the African American learns, at least in Minnesota, and I know it happens in other states in the North, that because we are numerically minuscule, we’re very small, we don’t have political power even though we have a right to vote, we spent a lot of time trying to be on the right side of the power elite and so we don’t have the type of conversation, candid conversation that one needs to have and one expects to have between friends. There isn’t that kind of friend, there’s a power dynamic that discourages blacks from being candid and so a parallel world begins to exist between blacks and white.

Blacks are free, they have access to the power elite but they can’t say yes, but what are you going to do about this guy who’s denying the access to being served in the restaurant or whatever? So we’ve been quiet on that.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so interesting because I mean, they didn’t have this language, but in a way, what whites were saying is, “You’re on your own and the problem is you’re … individually, there’s nothing … ” we would say structurally or systemic about the racism you’re experiencing. If the whites were even acknowledging that racism. It’s yours to fix and certainly there’s still that. I mean, I can think of white people I know well who’ve made … “Why can’t black people do what other immigrant groups have done and pull themselves up?” So this gets us into George Floyd in a way, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, here in Minneapolis. I know you’ve spoken about, written about this quite a bit. I mean, isn’t this history at least partly to explain why so many white Minnesotans were surprised at the anger? I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard, I’ve heard white people say, white Minnesotans say, “Well this isn’t Minnesota.” And I say, “Well it is Minnesota if you look at the history of black, white relations.” I think those parallel universes you mentioned, or worlds, are helpful in understanding why white Minnesotans were flabbergasted by what happened, both the murder of George Floyd, but especially the aftermath. That’s a lot, but dig in wherever you’d like.

William Green:

Well, the sense of unawaredness, and that’s a word I’m making up, that a lot of white Minnesotans had, “We didn’t know that this was still a problem, we thought this had been settled a long time ago.” That’s an attitude that really took generations to develop. By that, I mean this. It’s a manifestation of the fact that black people and white people live in two different worlds. They’re in parallel universes. I mean, they live close enough to see each other, sort of, but not really know each other, or even really see each other. An example of that is this, where I just got finished doing a piece on Nellie Francis, who was one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in 1919 and then in 1920 there was a lynching.

Greg Kaster:

In Duluth, yeah.

William Green:

In Duluth and she basically drafted the language for an anti-lynching law, she and her husband, and she lobbied the legislature to the point where all but one legislator supported the enactment of an anti-lynching bill. Okay, so she is a hero and a lot of people recognize her as an extraordinary person and it also suggests that she had developed relationships with powerful white people who would support this effort to change the right to vote and that was necessary because the African American population was just too small to demand that kind of recognition from the powers that be. So she had to have alliances with white people.

Okay, so the bill is passed. Three years later, she and her husband decide to move from a home that they’ve occupied for years in the black community, and they purchased a home in a white neighborhood in St. Paul and before they occupied the place, the neighbors were demonstrating against here, the Klan supposedly, burning crosses on their land. She was harassed, she and her husband were harassed simply because they lived in that neighborhood and what’s noteworthy to me about that, aside from that itself, is the fact that all of her friends, white friends, the white friends with power, the mayor, the governor, the legislators, city council members and leaders of the suffrage movement, said nothing. They did nothing.

Now, let me just take a step back for a second on that point. The question that a lot of white suffragists at the time were dealing with, is why should we take seriously black women? They’re not here. Well, and [Albert Lee 00:40:33] during one of the suffrage campaigns, the organization offered tickets to see Birth Of A Nation if you come and join the suffrage movement. That kind of blindness is what African American women at that time were looking at and the history, the tensions between white suffragists and black suffragettes, or suffragists, commonplace, we know that now, two exist, the tensions between black and white women.

But Nellie had a special challenge in trying to get black women to participate. Black women believed in suffrage, they felt it was the right thing to have suffrage and that was not the problem. The problem was the last time, and these were survivors from reconstruction, you didn’t have to be very old to have survived the reconstruction years, the last time the nation extended voting rights to black people, what happened? The Klan-

Greg Kaster:

Klan [crosstalk 00:41:39].

William Green:

… rode bareback and now you’re looking at Minnesota and white friends don’t see that fear, even though they’re using tickets to promote a rally, Birth Of A Nation. Then you add to that, the fact that in the summer of 1920, you have the lynching of these three black men. Now, that wasn’t because of suffrage, wasn’t because of suffrage, but to the African American who has lived through white terror throughout the first half of the 20th century and the second half of the 19th century, there seems to be a connection here, that once blacks become a part of more enfranchisement, it seems to threaten the powers that be and the question is, where are our friends going to be?

So this relationship between blacks and whites, even blacks and liberal whites, is always going to be awkward, because they’re trying to think about what happens the day afterwards. Now, you’re talking about George Floyd, a lot of my students were wondering, “Will my friends who were in the streets with me be there when the drama has passed and the hard work has to begin in making [crosstalk 00:43:03]?”

Greg Kaster:

That’s an important question.

William Green:

That’s the important question and when they’re asked that question, the answer always is, “Wait and see.” And that’s always a disappointing answer to white reporters for example who are asking. They’re hoping for this to be the beginning of a new age and they want blacks to embrace it but then African Americans say, “Well, we don’t want to speak too loudly about our skepticism because after all, we’re glad folks are out here now.” But in our heart of hearts, we’ve seen abandonment before and will this be yet another example. So the notion of exceptionalism is something that the white community at the turn of the century invented for themselves, without any kind of assessment from their black colleagues.

Greg Kaster:

Right, and it’s comforting, and it masks and obscures the deep inequalities around race. I mean, the segregations that still exists, certainly in Minneapolis to this day. The other thing about the white allies, I mean, there’s rightly a lot of focus on that today around the George Floyd protests and yet, that also can reach a point where the white allies become the story and we lose sight of what’s … So I don’t know where you come down on this, I’ve been asked sometimes by students, “Is this the moment? Is this the turning point?” I’m not so sure but I’m speaking here as a historian obviously, not as a black American but hopefully, but I think we have to wait and see in history … Go ahead.

William Green:

My answer when I’ve been asked that question by reporters is just, “Wait and see.” And that’s a problem with our society, we want things to be clear and resolved, we want closure now, without really having to grapple with the challenge of the hard work.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right, yes, that’s right. I mean actually a white SNCC activist I was in a webinar with and it’s Lou [Sussman 00:45:18] maybe, anyway he was one of the Freedom Riders but he was making that point too, same point. He works in Harlem now with young people but it’s not enough to just protest, even if you protest for many weeks. Yes, that’s important but there’s more work to be done, a lot more work. In some ways, harder work as well.

Let’s talk about … You mentioned, is it Eliza Winston? Her story that you were eluding to earlier, the slave woman and her trial?

William Green:

Yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, tell us a little bit about that because I find that so interesting and again, I think most people listening don’t know about it.

William Green:

Minnesota in 1860 was free soil, which is to say that slavery was prohibited in this region. Minnesota in 1860 was now two years into being a state controlled by the Republican Party and it had adopted a state constitution which prohibited slavery as well but Minneapolis in particularly and St. Anthony, which is now considered … it’s the East Bank of St. Anthony. If you know Stone Arch, if you know Minneapolis you know Stone Arch, that neighborhood, across the river on the East Bank, that was considered St. Anthony, that was St. Anthony [inaudible 00:46:52], or the village of St. Anthony and that is a place where John North, a man from New York, came and tried to make into the New England of the West. He wanted to plant a colony of reformers in this region. He did not succeed and so he moved down to the Cannon River and formed another community that would be a community of reform and he named it after himself, it was called Northfield.

But the long and the short of it is is that Minneapolis and St. Anthony were considered politically much more liberal compared to the more conservative St. Paul in 1860, and yet, we have the benefit of this waterfalls, which was the attraction of so many tourists. During this particular time, the more tourists tended to come up to Minnesota on the Mississippi River from the South, they were Southerners and after Dred Scott had been decided, which concluded the provision that said that a slave holder can take his slave anywhere, including free soil and still retain ownership. Southerners basically had the license to bring their slaves with them to Minnesota, even though Minnesota was free soil.

Because St. Anthony Falls is located in St. Anthony, Minneapolis, this is where they would come. St. Anthony, Minneapolis was the only site of the Anti-Slave Society, it didn’t exist any other place in the state and so you have this strange construct, where slave holders would bring their slaves to St. Anthony in Minneapolis, St. Anthony in particular, to vacation in a state where you have an anti-slave society situated just a couple of doors down, the tension is ripe. The slave holder, whose name wonderfully is Colonel Christmas, Richard Christmas, that’s one of the reasons [inaudible 00:49:05] in the story, his name’s incredible. He’s away on business, his wife is in the resort, his wife told the slave woman, Eliza Winston, to take her frock to the seamstress down the street and to have it mended. The seamstress is a black woman named Emily Gray.

Interestingly enough, most of the people who are residents of the region do their own repairs, so her clientele tends to be the tourists, who tend to be Southerners, and she’s also friends with the anti-slave people. I’m going to try to be clear because it gets complicated, but the long and the short of it is this. Emily Gray helps Eliza Winston. Emily Gray, the free black woman who owns the seamstress shop, hears Eliza Winston’s call for help and so Emily Gray tells her abolitionist friends, “We’ve got to get this woman, we’ve got to bring her to freedom.”

The slave woman is whisked away by her master and mistress, they learn about this plot to free her. They go to another lodge, on the shores of Lake Calhoun, I think it was called Lake Calhoun at the time. Emily Gray leads a posse through the streets of Minneapolis and this is not me imagining what’s happened, this is expressed in the newspaper of the day, the State Atlas. She’s at the head of the posse. I want you to imagine for a second what the men standing on the street corner, seeing a posse come through led by a black woman, were thinking. Many of the guys on the street corner in Minneapolis and St. Anthony benefited from working in the tourism trade, because lumbering was at a lull, the grain industry and the flour industry hadn’t really begun, there was a lot of unemployment, a lot of people who had supported the anti-slave provision to the constitution now were willing to make that compromise because now their income depended on it, on that kind of trade.

So they see Emily Gray lead the posse to Lake Calhoun, they get the slave woman, they bring her back. Judge Vandenberg is waiting to hear the case, he’s in the courtroom. Sidebar, Charles Vandenberg, the judge, is the guy who dedicated City Hall that we see today, at [inaudible 00:51:58] downtown, he dedicated that in 1900. He’s in courtroom waiting for the slave woman to be brought in, the courtroom is packed with anti-abolition sentiment. People are hanging out windows. They’re pro-slave. They’re supportive of Christmas, they’re fearful of losing their jobs because of slave holders, if they leave means there would be no tourism, no business for them.

So the woman is brought up before the court. The attorney representing the slave and Colonel Christmas, his name is John Freeman, he’s from New York but he’s also attorney general from the state of Mississippi and he’s vacationing. So brings in all sorts of constitutional law, which is what you’re supposed to do and the constitution at that time had so many provisions that protected … and federal law protected the rights of slave holders.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right, pro-slavery.

William Green:

Pro-slavery and the constitution also expressly states that the constitution as a document and federal law as a body of law preempts state law. Well, he makes this argument about all the different cases, the various legal federal laws that were passed and then he sits down, I imagine kind of wounded, or winded from his oration and now the attorney representing the slave woman gets up, his name is F.R.E. Cornell. He makes an argument that’s quite simple and succinct. He says, “Yes, yes, yes. We know about federal law, but damn it, this is Minnesota and we don’t have slavery here.” And he sat down, his argument is less than five minutes and the judge rules in his favor, boom.

At which point, there’s an explosion in the courtroom. The judge frees the slave woman. Now, I imagine that his decision itself that infuriated people but it’s also possibly because Vandenberg, the judge, and Cornell, the attorney for the slave woman, were also law partners and they would later serve together on the state supreme court, maybe it’s through that connection, they’re both from New York, generally the same section of New York where Freeman is from, who represented the slave woman.

So there’s an eruption in the courtroom, William S. King, who is the editor of the newspaper, the State Atlas and would later become a postmaster under Lincoln, gets up and starts speaking and the crowd is confused by what he’s saying, but he distracts them long enough for the other abolitionists to whisk Eliza Winston out of the courtroom. One of the members of the crowd however, recognizes what’s happening and there’s chaos once again. One of the members of the crowd approaches the slave owner, Christmas, and says, “Look, give us the word and we’ll just take her back for you.” This is a Minnesotan saying this to a Mississippian. “Give us the word and we’ll take her back for you.”

Colonel Christmas says, “No, no, no, don’t worry about that. Let her go. I’ve got plenty of her at home. I don’t need that.” He furthermore approaches the slave woman and gives her money and says, “There’s more of this if you need it. You’re always welcome to come home.” The editors at the time, who saw this, commented on Christmas being the most gentlemanly of all of the people in that courtroom and it stunned them. In any event, Eliza Winston is whisked out. For the next several months, the residents of Minneapolis and St. Anthony are walking in the streets. They had a riot, they destroy Emily Gray’s seamstress shop, her husband was a barber, his shop is destroyed. The printing press of William S. King is destroyed and a number of known homes of abolitionists were destroyed, including the home where it was believed that the slave woman was being held for safety. It was the home of William Babbitt, yet another great Minnesota name and New York born.

So the long and short of it is this. There’s chaos in the streets of Minneapolis and St. Anthony. Minneapolitans and St. Anthonyites are working the streets with loaded weapons, eyeing each other, waiting for the slightest provocation to blow each other away. This is just a couple years after Bleeding Kansas began. You even hear and read about congressmen worried that we’re going to have another Bleeding Kansas in Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

In Minnesota, huh.

William Green:

There is a threat and a very real likelihood that we’re about to have another insurrection or even war on the issue of slavery, to be played out on the free soil of Minnesota and the only thing that averts Minnesota’s attention from that, was when war was declared in Charleston Harbor, when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. A postscript to that, employers of some of the men who participated in the riot reported closing businesses because a lot of the guys who were hired to work for these businesses left to sign up to fight in the union, army. They were anxious to do that. I mean, it’s a strange … I like to pause on [inaudible 00:58:37] students because you say, “Well, what the hell’s going on here?” Where we seem to yo-yo back and forth but this was Minnesota in 1860, 1861.

Greg Kaster:

And you could fight for the union, didn’t mean you were fighting for black people, or necessarily even to end slavery, or if you were fighting in part to end slavery, it didn’t mean you were fighting for black white equality or black civil rights. That to me is such a fascinating story, in part because it’s a reminder that in addition to the slave rescue attempts, some of which were successful in the pre-Civil War period in the North, where abolitionists, white and black, sought to rescue so-called fugitive slaves, you’ve got an element of that here, where she’s whisked away, but it’s also a reminder of how important … first of all, slavery was a legal system, it was a labor system, or racial system or caste system, but it was also a legal system and that one of the tools opponents of slavery used was the law. So you’ve got the judge waiting and the judge ruling that this woman is indeed a free person. Fantastic story, gripping story. That should be turned into a movie, by the way, or a little TV something, seriously, a little documentary, that’d be great.

Before we conclude, and thank you for telling that, before we conclude, you were superintendent, you chaired the school board in Minneapolis, you were also superintendent and I just want to get your take on the issue of school reopening in the time of COVID. So imagine you were … I mean, I hear you saying, “Thank God this isn’t the case,” but imagine you are superintendent right now. What are you thinking and what are you saying about that issue of school reopening amid this pandemic?

William Green:

Yeah [crosstalk 01:00:27] I’m not in that position anymore, I’m so thankful for that. I think that it’s crazy to expect that the school system, or any college system, has the resources to make it safe for kids during this time, to come back in the classrooms. I mean, our classrooms in the school district … now, I’m speaking as one who’s been about of that game for 10 years, but my sense is that not much has occurred to change the physical structure of the schools, so that the schools are about … the classrooms in particular, and the hallways in particular, are the same as they were 10 years ago, which did not anticipate a pandemic.

I think that it just doesn’t make sense to send kids back at this particular time and it’s not just about sending kids back, but it’s also about the teachers, and it’s not just about the teachers, the welfare, but about the bus drivers, few of our kids actually live within walking distance of their schools, they have to ride buses and I’m thinking about the drivers, the custodial staff. It’s just so impractical to believe that any school system, regardless of whether it’s a red state or a blue state, regardless of whether it’s in Florida or Minnesota, that we can suddenly accommodate and it’s a complicated thing, I mean it’s easy for me to denigrate those who would want to resume business as usual but I know it’s much more complicated than that. I recognize that a lot of parents are worried about how do we go to work, or where do we place the kids? How much time are we losing, perhaps never to be reclaimed?

Greg Kaster:

That’s right. I mean, what happens to the kids who aren’t able to go back for another half year or more?

William Green:

Exactly, so it’s an incredibly complicated issue and I don’t really know the answer to it in any kind of useful way.

Greg Kaster:

Well, here’s to you not being superintendent right now, so this is more armchair than anything and here’s to you being the scholar you are, of Minnesota black history. Your work is simply superb, it’s so well-researched and so readable and I urge everyone to get your books, including the one forthcoming in January, on Nellie Francis, she sounds fascinating. We’re proud to claim you as an alum of the history department and of course of the college.

William Green:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Best of luck with your own teaching this fall, we’ll all need it.

William Green:

I just want to share one thing with you.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead.

William Green:

During the time when Nick was being promoted, was being approached by schools and universities and whatnot and academies-

Greg Kaster:

This is your son?

William Green:

Yeah, this is my son. I didn’t know that he was going to do this, he went to Gustavus, that was one of the things he went down for for the rush week, so to speak. I asked him, “Well, why are you interested in Gustavus?” I mean, because we never really talked about it. It was good for me but I didn’t want press anything on him and he says, “It looked like it treated you well.” I mean, he said this so he was very proud of being a Gustie and still is. So there you go.

Greg Kaster:

Boy, I’m thinking about how that could be used in marketing. To be able to say to your parent, “You look your alma mater treated you well,” that’s pretty powerful, that’s great. We’re glad Nick came as well and maybe I’ll be interviewing him at some point too. So thank you so much, I could talk about this forever, I find it absolutely fascinating and including all that comes out of the fact that the black population is small, all of that has meant, over time. So here’s to a vaccination, here’s to justice and we’ll talk again soon, I hope. Take good care.

William Green:

Thank you very much Greg, I appreciate [inaudible 01:05:00].

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure, thank you.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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