Rural-Urban Racialized Spaces in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest

Solicited by the Agricultural History Society and Midwestern History Association. Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Friday, April 16, 2021, 2:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: African American; Midwest; Social and Cultural


The history of the Midwest, the region that would become America’s heartland, includes largely forgotten stories of black inventors, abolitionists, runaway enslaved people, farmers and soldiers. Each struggled to attain personal liberty, civil rights, social justice, and full citizenship. Participants (academic historians, teachers, and public historians) in this lightning round detail both the unequal system that violated the ideals of American democracy and the responses of African Americans seeking freedom and equal rights in locations in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the years leading up to the Civil War, and then how their strategies and options changed after the war.

Papers Presented

McCoy Family: Overview of Findings to Document Scaling Race and Geo-Political Barriers

This paper addresses Elijah McCoy's family history, their flight from the upland south, their transnational lives, and their experiences into the late-19th century in Michigan. The overview will focus on Elijah McCoy and his family. McCoy was granted 52 patents and design registrations between 1872 and 1915, a phenomenal amount for anyone, but particularly notable for an African American during the Jim Crow years in America. Telling the story of this amazing innovator and the family that produced him started as a project to create an accurate story for 4th graders and became a quest to find the truth of this fascinating family. That has been rather difficult to uncover. (Note that Catherine Tuczek will address the research component of the presentation).

Presented By
Janice Warju, The Henry Ford

African Americans Farming in Midwestern Cities (St. Louis and Detroit as Case Studies)

Cities invested in feeding their citizens, and public markets (as old as cities themselves) ensured access to perishable vegetables and fruits. Market gardeners practiced intensive agriculture on small acreages relatively close to these public markets, and the markets offered opportunities for direct sales to customers. Hucksters, the term for those who sold perishables at public markets, included many immigrants of English, Irish, French, and Germanic descent. What role did African-American farm families have in this business before the Civil War, and did freedom equate to a new era of market-oriented agriculture for African Americans after the Civil War? This paper surveys evidence from Detroit, Michigan, a 1701 French settlement that grew on the border between the United States and Canada, and St. Louis, Missouri, a city created in 1754 that grew on the border between free and slave states. Both had ethnically diverse populations and thriving public markets. The degree to which African Americans participated in these markets during the nineteenth century remains underexplored. This overview summarizes ante- and post-bellum data on race and market gardening in these two cities as a component of a larger study of race as a factor in small-scale market-oriented agriculture. By the late-nineteenth century, men and women enrolled at iconic southern schools such as Hampton and Tuskegee Institute learned about market gardening but was that curriculum reflecting a new opportunity for African Americans with little acreage but market proximity, or was it a tried and true avenue for economic solvency for small-scale producers?

Presented By
Debra A. Reid, The Henry Ford

African Americans in Iowa from 1833 to 1890

A small population of African Americans lived in Iowa in the nineteenth century and this paper briefly traces the complex history of race in the state. Iowa was at the western edge of the sectional dispute and some helped fugitive slaves escape from Missouri and Kansas. But most Iowans believed slavery was the natural state for blacksone black man was lynched in Dubuque and state law forbid black settlement until the 1860s. Masters pursued fugitive slaves into Iowa, the number of runaways increasing in the 1850s. Disputes ended up in court; sometimes they were settled at gunpoint. A loosely organized series of stops on the Underground Railroaded aided fugitives, who fled individually and in family groups. After the Civil War broke out, more than 1,000 black Iowans and escaped slaves joined the 60th Colored Regiment, serving in Arkansas. In 1868 white voters in Iowa gave black men the right to vote in a statewide referendumtwo years before the fifteenth amendment. In that same year, Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of schools in the state was illegal. By the end of the 1860s, the Union had been restored and Iowa had made surprising progress toward racial equality. After the Civil War, Iowa’s black population continued to grow; they mostly lived in Mississippi River towns or in southeast Iowa. The town of Clarinda had 153 blacks in 1870. More than 10,000 lived in Iowa by 1890, including Samuel Hall who fled Tennessee and lived in Iowa as a free man for almost fifty years.

Presented By
Jeff R. Bremer, Iowa State University

“Teach Your Sons that this Broad Domain is for You”: Labor and Black Suffrage in Minnesota

On January 1, 1869, black citizens of Minnesota gathered in the state’s capital to celebrate an amendment to the state constitution granting black men the right to vote. Such conventions were an opportunity to celebrate the advances of the race since emancipation and to forge a collective vision for the future. Although the African American population of Minnesota was small, black men had claimed their belonging in the state and the right to vote through their labor, education, military service, and respectability. One celebrant addressed the convention and urged them to “be assured that through labor, and through labor alone, you are to be honored and respected among men.” Black Minnesotans knew that their white neighbors viewed them primarily as laborers and organized to secure employment, but they also hoped to claim land on the vast prairie. Having secured the vote, veterans of the United States Colored Troops sought to expand their place in Minnesota beyond menial labor and claim their manhood as property owners and voters. Former USCT soldiers explored opportunities to claim agricultural lands opened by the forced relocation of Dakota people, but often found they were shut out upon arrival. This paper analyzes the debates over homesteading rights and the decisions of black workers and former soldiers to migrate to Minnesota. Black workers faced violence and limited opportunities in urban areas, but organizations like the Sons of Freedom were intent on publicizing available training in skilled trades and obtaining property for the uplift of the entire race. Black workers in urban and rural contexts believed that owning property was key to gaining respect and influence as voters.

Presented By
Shannon M. Smith, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University

Lewis Washingon’s "the Man for Me": Music, Manhood, and Midwestern Activism in Nineteenth-Century Wisconsin

Lewis Washington’s “That’s the Man for Me” always stole the show along the Wisconsin Liberty Party circuit. As his white touring partner Chauncey Olin proclaimed, this leading African American midwestern abolitionist and civil rights advocate “sung with a vim and he took down the house.” Washington escaped Washington D.C. bondage to upstate New York freedom in 1842. However, he spent much of his adulthood in Wisconsin’s Waukesha and Pierce counties. Washington performed at 1840s Liberty Party meetings; he appeared at an 1860s “Meeting of Colored People of Pierce Co.” and a St. Paul, Minnesota, “Colored People’s Convention;” and his family sang spirituals in 1870s Pierce County. Washington’s activism places the Midwest centerstage in African Americans’ antebellum-through-Reconstruction efforts to define their own blackness, manhood, citizenship, and cultural authenticity. When touring from the abolitionist hotbed of Waukesha to less hospitable locales, his stage style and juxtaposition of familiar-versus-transgressive songs mediated between white audiences’ sympathy and hostility, both toward abolitionism and black male bodies. His spiritual concerts joined lyceum debates, “colored” men’s meetings, and Emancipation celebrations—organized by a growing black community within Pierce County’s farmers and small-town tradesmen—to teach white neighbors about African Americans’ struggles, suffrage quests, dignity, and dedication to democracy. These performances challenged derogations that circulated onstage and in newspapers around Pierce. Washington used sound and space to cement black men’s and families’ belonging—alongside white migrants’ and European immigrants’—within a rural Midwest that mistakenly caste them as outsiders despite their decades-long contributions in the region.

Presented By
Jennifer Kirsten Stinson, Saginaw Valley State University

McCoy Family: Challenges of Documenting Strategies Responsive to Racism and Geo-Political Barriers

This paper addresses Elijah McCoy's family history, their flight from the upland south, their transnational lives, and their experiences into the late-19th century in Michigan. The McCoy family research illustrates the difficulty in tracing the roots of many African-American families. Research undertaken by Tuczek and Warju stretched from Kentucky, to Canada, to Scotland, and to Michigan. Many of our discoveries led to more questions than they answered and took us in unanticipated directions. This story reinforces the need for awareness and tenacity in searching records that are missing, incomplete or perhaps created with racial bias, the difficulty in separating fact and family lore, and the issues encountered in accessing records over multiple states and foreign countries. The presenters hope that the story of Elijah McCoy and his family inspires other historians investigating African-American history, as well as the schoolchildren who motivated our quest.

Presented By
Catherine Tuczek, Detroit Public Schools Community District

Session Participants

Chair: Bonnie Ellen Laughlin-Schultz, Eastern Illinois University
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz is a historian of the 19th century United States who specializes in American women's history. Her first book, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism, was published in 2013 and was named a Kansas Notable Book in 2014. She is now working on a project about the "woman question" in 19th century America, looking at the woman question in public life and as evidenced in Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association's Woman's Journal. She teaches the US survey, American women's history, history of the American family, social studies teaching methods, and historical research/writing, and she serves as coordinator for Social Science Teaching.

Presenter: Jeff R. Bremer, Iowa State University
Jeff Bremer is an associate professor of history at Iowa State University, where he helps to coordinate ISU’s history education program. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and teaches courses on history education, the early republic, and Iowa. His book A Store Almost in Sight: The Economic Transformation of Missouri from the Louisiana Purchase to the Civil War was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2014. In 2019 he was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where he taught American history at Northeast Normal University. He is currently working on A New History of Iowa, 1673-2020, which will be completed by 2022.

Presenter: Debra A. Reid, The Henry Ford
Debra A. Reid, PhD, is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. She has training in history (MA from Baylor University and PhD from Texas A&M) and in historic preservation and history museum studies (with a B.S. from Southeast Missouri State University, and an M.A. from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies). She was a professor in the Department of History at Eastern Illinois University from 1999 through 2016 before moving to The Henry Ford. She remains an adjunct professor teaching a course in the history of Illinois agriculture at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Her books include the award-winning Reaping a Greater Harvest: African Americans and the Agricultural Extension Service in Jim Crow Texas (2007) and Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites (2017), the co-edited Beyond Forty-Acres and a Mule: African American Landowners since Reconstruction (with Evan Bennett, 2012), and the co-written Interpreting the Environment at Museums and Historic Sites (with David D. Vail, 2019). She is president of the Agricultural History Society (and a fellow of that society).

Presenter: Shannon M. Smith, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University
Shannon Smith is an associate professor of history at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota, where she teaches a variety of courses on gender and race in US history, the Civil War in American Culture, and protest and rebellion. She holds a PhD from Indiana University and a master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. She has published articles in the OAH Magazine of History, Civil War America: A Social and Cultural History, the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, and forthcoming in Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reconstruction and Its Meanings 150 Years Later. She is currently researching the ways that protests and commemorative culture in Minnesota in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped to inscribe gendered and raced relations of power and status differences into public space.

Presenter: Jennifer Kirsten Stinson, Saginaw Valley State University
Jennifer Kirsten Stinson (Ph.D. Indiana University, 2009) is an associate professor of history, gender, and public history at Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan. She researches African American, African French, and African Indigenous families’ attempts to gain, expand, and navigate the limits of freedom in the rural upper Midwest’s farming, mining, trading, and small-town communities. She explores their reckoning with regionally and nationally changing ideologies of race and citizenship, especially their resonance within family households and across larger kin groups. Stinson’s work appears in Middle West Review, Journal of Global Slavery, Abolition & Slavery, and an anthology on global slaving zones. Her forthcoming book manuscript is titled: “They All Mixed in Together, the White and the Colored:” Freedom, Family, and Race in the Rural Upper Midwest, 1820-1920. She serves as book review editor for Middle West Review.

Presenter: Catherine Tuczek, Detroit Public Schools Community District
Catherine Tuczek works for the Detroit Public Schools Community District Office of Social Studies planning curriculum and supporting teachers of grades 3-8. Tuczek was an education coordinator & curator at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI for a decade, and began her career as a classroom teacher. She holds a BA in Education from the University of Michigan and an MA in History from Eastern Illinois University.

Presenter: Janice Warju, The Henry Ford
Janice Warju is a retired teacher who dedicated thirty years to educating students in the humanities and social sciences. In 2004, Janice began working at The Henry Ford as a Model T Driver and Master Presenter during her summer breaks. Warju joined the Learning and Engagement Team in 2017 to assist with an NEH workshop and has continued working with the department on various projects as the Learning Content Coordinator. She holds a BS in Ed and an MA in History from Central Michigan University.