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More than one hundred years before Barack Obama, George Edwin Taylor made presidential history. Born in the antebellum South to a slave and a freed woman, Taylor became the first African American ticketed as a political party’s nominee for president of the United States, running against Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
Orphaned as a child at the peak of the Civil War, Taylor spent several years homeless before boarding a Mississippi riverboat that dropped him in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Taken in by an African American farm family, Taylor attended a private school and eventually rose to prominence as the owner/editor of a labor newspaper and as a vocal leader in Wisconsin’s People’s Party. At a time when many African Americans felt allegiance to the Republican Party for its support of abolition, Taylor’s sympathy with the labor cause drew him first to the national Democratic Party and then to an African American party, the newly formed National Liberty Party, which in 1904 named him its presidential candidate. Bruce L. Mouser follows Taylor’s life and career in Arkansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida, giving life to a figure representing a generation of African American idealists whose initial post-slavery belief in political and social equality in America gave way to the despair of the Jim Crow decades that followed.
Best Books for Special Interests, selected by the American Association for School Libraries
Best Books for Professional Use, selected by the American Association for School Libraries
Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Association
Second Place, Biography, Society of Midland Authors
Honorable Mention, Benjamin F. Shambough Award, the State Historical Society of Iowa
“A generation before A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Ella Baker, there was George Edwin Taylor. Rich in detail, this compelling story sheds light on black labor struggles in the Upper Midwest and brings to life an American civil rights hero and pioneer of independent black politics at the turn of the twentieth century.”—Omar H. Ali, author of In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States
“An excellent biography of a forgotten but important leader.” —The Annals of Iowa
“Mouser’s biography is a triumph of detective work conducted over many years. . . . [T]hanks to Mouser’s quoting of many of Taylor’s editorials and political platforms in full, we do get a chance to ponder his political statements in detail and thus get a glimpse into a world of northern black politics that has so often been neglected.”—Stephen Tuck, Presidential Studies Quarterly
A black man runs for president...in 1904.
With a slave for a father, George Edwin Taylor (1857–1925) was born in Arkansas. Orphaned young, he came of age in La Crosse, Wis., where thanks to his foster family he received a classical education rich in language and oratory. He became a reporter, editor and publisher of newspapers that championed the causes of farmers and workingmen.From mentors like publisher "Brick" Pomeroy, a founder of the Greenback Party, and political insurgent Frank "White Beaver" Powell, Taylor learned and perfected the fiery language of populism. Following a series of third-party alliances, a move to Iowa and a brief flirtation with the Republicans, Taylor allied with the Democrats for more than a decade before emerging as the "standard-bearer of the National Negro Liberty Party." Mouser (A Slaving Voyage to Africa and Jamaica: The Log of the Sandown, 1793-1794, 2002, etc.) forthrightly concedes the difficulty of reconstructing Taylor's life—no personal papers survive—and acknowledges that even periods of years go missing. We learn almost nothing about Taylor's three wives or of the health issues that apparently plagued him. Receiving only 2,000 votes and getting crushed by Theodore Roosevelt in a presidential election normally wouldn't warrant even the slight biographical sketch the author dutifully attempts, but Taylor's work as a writer and activist commands our attention for two reasons. First, Barack Obama's historic election has heightened interest in all his antecedents, however obscure. Second, Taylor's career opens a window on the first stirrings of independent black politics. His uncommon background and training, his migration from farm/labor causes to race-centered issues and his peculiar place in the era's black political firmament—caught between the eastern intellectual establishment led by W.E.B. Du Bois and the waning Southern school embodied by Booker T. Washington—all offer an unusual perspective on the larger story of an emerging consciousness that would came to fruition more than 100 years later.
A necessarily sketchy but worthwhile contribution to our understanding of black political history.
One of Taylor's most enduring traits was his ability to stand above the fray, almost like an outsider looking in. Perhaps this "other" status, whether in white society or in black, was sufficient to permit him to pause, reassess, and then reconstruct in ways that others who were integral to a circumstance could not. The speech that he delivered to an Emancipation Day audience in Keokuk, Iowa, on 10 August 1898 is a case in point. His audience was composed of celebrants, for this day in August was the black midsummer equivalent to the Fourth of July and had been observed as a special day since Britain freed its slaves in the West Indies on 1 August 1834. Up and down the Mississippi River it was a time for singing, dancing, eating, marching, and matchmaking. But it also was a patriotic time of remembrance and of speeches of uplift and promise. Taylor could have delivered a message of encouragement and assurance (and perhaps he did), but what caught a newspaper reporter's attention and his pen was that part of Taylor's speech in which he delivered words of criticism not against a person or a policy but against a whole people. How Taylor could say such things repeatedly and still be invited to address groups time after time says much about his personality and his ability to assess and describe in a pragmatic, inoffensive, and lively way the circumstances of the day. That is no small feat, for people tend to react negatively to those who bring criticism.
George Edwin Taylor's journey to prominence in the closing decade of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth is unlike that generally reported in African American scholarship. Born to a slave father and a free black mother in Arkansas in 1857, Taylor lived his formative years in or near La Crosse, Wisconsin, before moving to Iowa, where he remained until 1910. It was while he lived in Iowa that the National Negro Liberty Party selected him as its standard-bearer and candidate for the office of president of the United States in the 1904 election campaign. Taylor lost that election.
Taylor championed a worldview and a constituency that differed significantly from those of the eastern black establishment or graduates of government-organized Freedmen's Bureau schools or institutions sponsored by northern churches or philanthropists. Taylor's world was more akin to that of displaced war refugees who found themselves surrounded by dissimilar people or the world of those who moved in small groups out of the South to form colonies or fill occupational niches in the upper Midwest as farmers, miners, barbers, whitewashers, domestic workers, cooks, and general day laborers. He was not the beneficiary of any of the educational opportunities that the federal government initiated during Reconstruction through the Freedmen's Bureau to create a black leadership class. His lifelong struggle was not in cities of the East Coast or boardrooms of newspapers, halls of academe, or courtrooms at either the state or the federal level. Nor were most of Taylor's companions well educated and well bred. Class membership was not an issue for Taylor early in his life, but class identification was as relevant within America's black community in the late nineteenth century as it is in that of the twenty-first. Nor was Taylor a true member of the rural and black masses, but he changed into a working-class labor agitator and late-emergent black activist and veteran orator who happened also to be exceptionally articulate, energetic, and certain of his course. He could never gain membership among the churchmen, educators, editors, and politicians whom he may have admired because he lacked their credentials.
Taylor's time was one of enormous change, some good, but also much that was not. The Civil War years had promised emancipation and equality, and to a degree they had been obtained through passage of the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) amendments to the nation's Constitution and as a consequence of federal legislation that disenfranchised those who had oppressed and enslaved African Americans before the war. Laws passed during Reconstruction to improve educational and economic opportunities brought further change in the South, but always remaining was a pervasive and foundational land- and race-specific economic system that confined 90 percent of black Americans to subservient and servile stations, with little prospect of measurable improvement. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which marked the peak of civil rights legislation, guaranteed equal access to transportation, restaurants, hotels, theaters, and amusement centers and required equal consideration in jury selection and duty, but it did little to remove the endemic separateness that continued to exist throughout the nation. In the South, even by 1875, Reconstruction was in the process of ending. The Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, which resulted in Rutherford B. Hayes becoming president of the United States, relaxed federal vigilance in the South, and whites increasingly reasserted control over their states and citizens.
In the North circumstances for black Americans were not as debilitating as in the South, but changes in laws to empower blacks came slowly, partly because a palpable "color line" in occupational choices, residential placement, the use of common facilities, and political participation existed there as well both before the war and continuing after its end. Laws put in place to impose changes in the South and applied only to the South during the period of occupied Reconstruction were not enforceable in the North, following the accepted maxim that member states in good standing retained the right to make laws that regulated their own citizens. That maxim was matched by a foundational "doctrine of white supremacy" and an acceptance that blacks were "biologically inferior," as were all who were not a part of the white race. Fundamentally, most northerners who had fought against southern secession had not gone to war to give blacks equal voting rights, equal treatment and admission, or equal employment opportunity in their own hometowns. By 1877 they were no longer interested in reoccupying the South to force compliance with federal laws or to protect legal rights gained by African Americans in the 1860s and 1870s. Many black Yankees, those who had never known slavery and had lived their lives in the North, believed that whites had favored blacks by rescuing them from an oppressive African existence and had led them to a more civilized world.
In the year after Taylor's arrival in Wisconsin, the legal struggle for voting rights for blacks there was decided. Wisconsin's voters had defeated suffrage referenda in 1846, 1849, 1857, and again in 1865, but following the last referendum, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Gillespie v. Palmer et al. (1866) that the vote count for the 1849 referendum had been incorrectly interpreted and that blacks actually had obtained equal voting rights in 1849, seventeen years earlier and twelve years before the beginning of the Civil War. That ruling effectively ended debate that periodically consumed discussion within the state legislature and ushered in a period of gradual civil rights legislation that brought general compliance with the federal laws that were being applied in the occupied South.
Although the voting question was thus decided, the problem of black equality and integration into society remained a delicate issue, for a color line existed in La Crosse and throughout the upper Midwest. Part of that dated from the pre–Civil War period, when there was endemic belief among midwestern whites of all classes that blacks were inferior: while blacks could improve through education and individual effort, they were not expected to reach a level of acceptance or privilege equal to that held by whites. Once the war commenced, however, many in Wisconsin supported black recruitment to the Union cause. Employers attached to the river's commerce generally encouraged migration of black laborers up the Mississippi River to work as cooks, stewards, and cargo handlers, while white workingmen opposed them because large numbers competed for jobs. There also was widespread fear that black emancipation would bring a sudden flood of newly freed workers northward to complicate difficult working conditions and drive down wages, despite a determined campaign by employers to convince workers otherwise—that northern blacks would instead migrate southward to take advantage of opportunities opening there at the war's end. The Northwest Union Packet Company of La Crosse hired "several hundred" black workers in 1866, for example, and for the next several years violent clashes occurred in La Crosse between black and white workers. Local newspapers did little to stem the growth of such violence, and some, especially the La Crosse Democrat, edited by Marcus "Brick" Pomeroy, even encouraged it with vitriolic editorials against "scores of lousy, ragged, filthy, half-starved" blacks who roamed La Crosse's streets and clogged its courts. But there also was a sentiment, especially among many workers and Democrats, that blacks were the innocent pawns of ill-considered Republican and capital-driven policies at the national level following the war and that neither the whites nor the blacks were at fault for their unequal treatment in La Crosse. None of those attitudes changed with the arrival of new immigrants from Europe who carried with them their own negative sentiments toward race and ethnic differences.
The color line in La Crosse took other forms at the personal level. Blacks, for instance, complained that they were not welcome in certain churches, and other facilities were not open to them on a regular basis. Transient blacks were required to stay in black-operated boardinghouses, often little more than spare rooms within black households. There were no black-owned business enterprises in La Crosse other than those operated by barbers, and even barbers would not openly cut the hair of a black man for fear of offending white customers. Restaurants also were restricted not by law but by custom. Single blacks ate in boardinghouses or in their own homes if married. Those who could invest found that certain areas of the city became the sections where black-owned houses were to be located. Schools were open to all races, and in fact the First Ward School was geographically near a major black housing district, with the result that blacks were overrepresented in the city's schools during the 1870s and 1880s. Railroad travel and entertainment might be segregated, depending more on the whim of the ticket taker than on the law. Intermarriage occurred and was legally sanctioned by La Crosse law and practice, but in most registered instances those marriages were of single black males marrying divorced or widowed white single mothers. Generally, there was an attitude of separateness sufficient to require most blacks in La Crosse to segregate themselves into like-race groups for services and interactions, whether those involved housing or a railroad car. In a larger sense, however, that was the case for nearly all La Crosse residents, whether that segregation was based on class, region of origin, language, business type, immigration status and nationality, race, or profession, with the exception that whites could meld more easily into the larger population.
Taylor was born of uncertain status in the slaveholding state of Arkansas, but he spent his formative years in the upper Midwest and in a distinct physical and cultural setting that influenced his character and his responses to life's challenges. La Crosse in 1865 was a frontier boomtown that believed itself a gateway city to the West. Located on an important bend in the upper Mississippi River and blessed with great physical beauty (locals referred to it as God's Country) and lush forests of pine trees, La Crosse enjoyed a period of significant economic development and population growth during and after the Civil War. It quickly became a major port for ship building and ship repair upon the river, and its massive lumber-milling industry supplied the booming river commerce with unending supplies of scrap firewood for the huge appetites of paddle wheelers connecting St. Paul, Minnesota, to cities on the lower Mississippi. La Crosse's Yankee-bred investors were convinced that La Crosse would become an important railroad hub for commerce and a necessary transportation terminus and jumping-off location for migration northward from Chicago. At its peak La Crosse was the headquarters for eight companies operating paddle wheelers on the river, ten saw mills that processed nearly 250 million board feet of lumber per year, and a major repair location for three railroad lines joining Chicago and St. Paul. Until 1885 La Crosse was Wisconsin's second largest city.
The La Crosse that Taylor knew best was that of the late 1870s and mid- to late 1880s. Pre–Civil War settlers had come prominently from three regions of the country: the South by way of the Mississippi River, the Ohio Valley along the river highways used extensively in midcentury, and New England, whose residents saw the upper Midwest as a frontier where fortunes could be built. By 1865, when Taylor arrived in Wisconsin, migration patterns were changing, so that 42 percent of La Crosse County's population by 1870 was foreign born. That percentage remained consistent for the remainder of the century. La Crosse was the largest town in La Crosse County, and it would remain that county's population center. After the Civil War, Germans and Norwegians made up nearly two-thirds of its foreign-born population, with German and Norwegian spoken openly on the streets and in the workplace. German and Norwegian newspapers, singing societies, and ethnic-specific churches also flourished. That also was true in housing and work patterns, with certain occupations being staffed by particular ethnic groups and boardinghouses catering to special segments of the population and to those with particular culinary tastes. Wood-carvers in the furniture industry, for example, tended to be from Bohemia, with the result that some of La Crosse's remaining buildings from that period show elaborate woodworking and designs that link them to particular trade groups. By 1880 there was a definite northern European flavor to La Crosse, and that characteristic could easily be seen, heard, and sensed when visiting the city's center.
The town infrastructure was advanced for the time. By 1885 nearly all wooden structures in the city center had been destroyed by fires and replaced with iron and brick structures, and La Crosse gave the appearance of a bustling and growing town. It was contained on the west by the Mississippi River, but bluffs to the east were nearly five miles away, which meant that La Crosse had ample room for residential growth. It was a well-planned city, carefully platted and designed, with numbered streets counting from the river to the eastern bluffs and named streets running perpendicular from east to west. Downtown streets were brick paved and wide. The town itself was divided into north and south sections that were separated by the La Crosse River and a marsh that turned into a lake whenever the rivers flooded.
The city's economic life was vibrant and expansive by 1885. The downtown merchant and professional area was large by frontier standards. It also was densely populated with tenants who crowded the third stories of nearly all buildings located in that sector of the city. Three other industries were prominent in the city's success. The timber and woodcarving industry would peak in 1895, but until that time it or its derivative industries would employ nearly half of those workers who lived within La Crosse. The river commerce was linked indirectly to the timber industry, but in addition it supplied visitors who came by riverboat, thus generating income for hotels and restaurants. The railroads were the third industry that was prominent in the city's success. In 1885 the city's manufactures also produced horse-drawn buggies, farm plows and iron works, shoes, cigars, flour, saddlery, and numerous industries necessary on the frontier, where items often needed to be made for local consumption. La Crosse became and remained a major brewery center in the upper Midwest.
Excerpted from For Labor, Race, and Liberty by Bruce L. Mouser Copyright © 2011 by Bruce Mouser. Excerpted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Charts & Maps, Pictures, Acronysm
Chapter 1: Prologue
Chapter 2: From Orphaned Black to Printer's Devil: Taylor's Early Years in God's Country
Chapter 3: Labor Agitator, Newspaper Editor, and Political Novice: Schools of Hard Knocks
Chapter 4: Emergence of a Black Activist: Joining the African-American World and Succeeding
Chapter 5: Taylor: The National Democrat
Chapter 6: " A Duty to His Race": Taylor and His Campaign to Become President
Chapter 7: Escape to a Warm Place
Chapter 8: Conclusion
Chapter 9: Author's Reflections
A. Taylor interview with The Sun after the 1904 election
B. "Speech of Mr. W. L. Smith before the Convention of the Liberty Party at Douglass Hall"
C. "President Mitchell Blackmailed"
D. Letter from James Ross to George Taylor, 9 August 1904
E. "National Appeal to the American Negro—Why we should favor the Chicago Platform:
F. "Woman's Work." Address and communications for this department by Cora E. Taylor, Editor, Solicitor Office, Oskaloosa, Iowa
G. "Letter of acceptance made public today by Hon. George E. Taylor"
H. Election data for 1904 presidental election
I. Chart of George Edwin Taylor's life course