Emancipation's Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (review)
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Emancipation's Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest. By Leslie A. Schwalm. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 400. $65.00 cloth; $24.95 paper)

The author asserts that "emancipation's diaspora" constituted the wartime migration of former slaves northward and the debates that this generated among Northerners. Although the movement of ex-slaves into Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin was relatively minor—only 6,100 people during the 1860s joined about 2,500 blacks already there—relative size or proportion did not dictate "the force and extent of emancipation's impact on Americans and their ideas about race" [End Page 287] (pp. 2-3). The writer suggests that "race" is "a historically contingent construction" and that although their numbers were small, blacks "consciously sustained and commemorated a history that merits further investigation and recognition" (p. 3). Claiming that historians have overlooked the impact of emancipation in the North, she avers that in the upper Midwest the contest between blacks and whites over a variety of matters, such as segregation, was hotly contested and that African Americans formed a variety of infrastructures that sustained them. Women played a vital role in endorsing "an idealized black manhood" and in challenging "the extent of male privilege" (p. 6).

This book includes seven chapters and a brief epilogue. The first three explore the antebellum era. Chapter four focuses on migration and the black military experience. Only the fifth and sixth chapters deal with the era of Reconstruction proper, while the last explores the effort by African Americans to sustain memory of slavery and Reconstruction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

There is much value in this work—notably its examination of a territory that scholars have generally overlooked and its extensive use of local primary and secondary sources. That is also a major weakness, as the author has overlooked, or is unaware of, a substantial body of historical literature developed since the 1960s about black migration to the Midwest. Studies of black migration to Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are not explored here. Neither are those of towns and cities, large and small—such places as Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, as well as Alton, Evansville, Shawneetown, and Topeka.

The result is a study that provides little sense of comparison and contrast. The author demonstrates the overwhelming number of blacks in menial labor and service; the creation of black communities; the contest between blacks and whites over politics, the vote, segregation, civil rights, and the informal politics of race; and efforts to sustain memory. But how did these differ or resemble the experiences of blacks elsewhere? How, for instance, did the upper Midwest, with its many whites with Middle States and New England [End Page 288] roots, compare with the central or southern Midwest, where Kentuckians were predominant? Most upper Midwest blacks settled along the Mississippi. How did their experiences differ from, or resemble, for instance, those who settled on the north shore of the Ohio?

Despite the title, a significant portion of Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest deals with the black experience in portions of Iowa, especially in the southeastern part of the state. Slightly more than half of the text explores the years of Reconstruction. The last chapter, on memory, extends the work well into the twentieth century. The work, which lacks a conclusion and is replete with academic jargon, suggests that the audience is academic, including advanced undergraduate and graduate students, not general readers. Some factual errors (such as the details of the history of the Illinois Territory) and the absence of tables describing population distribution by state diminish the effectiveness of the study.

Darrel E. Bigham

Darrel E. Bigham is professor of history and director of Historic Southern Indiana emeritus, University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana. He has written extensively on race, ethnicity, and urbanization in the Midwest, most recently On Jordan's Banks: The Aftermath of Emancipation in the Ohio River Valley (2006). He was a member of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (2000-2010). He is working on a study of the impact of New England migration on...