Reconstruction historiography has taken several new directions since the publication of Eric Foner's magisterial Post-Revisionist synthesis in 1988. Historians have first expanded the geographical boundaries of the subject to include the West as well as the South. Second, they have questioned the chronological boundaries of the period by insisting that Reconstruction issues of race, democracy, and citizenship remained fluid and unresolved until the end of the nineteenth century. Finally, students of post-Civil War America have broadened their definition of politics beyond structures and ideologies to include questions of gender, citizenship, and political culture. In this very fine book on the impact of emancipation in the Midwest, Leslie A. Schwalm builds upon these new trends and moves them forward in compelling ways. [End Page 1244]
Schwalm puts emancipation at the center of Reconstruction in the Midwest. The story narrated here—of the migration and resettlement of former slaves from the Mississippi Valley into Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—is a neglected and important one. It begins, of course, with slavery. Free African-Americans brought with them the legacy of slavery, particularly the tragic implications of forced family separations. Schwalm points out that some forms of slavery still existed in the old Northwest. It was not until 1848 that Illinois formally outlawed slavery in its constitution. Blacks, then, entered a region with an ingrained history of unfree labor and racial prejudice. The Civil War was the major catalyst for the dissolution of slavery in the Mississippi Valley and the migration of freed men and women into Midwestern communities. Some slaves freed themselves; some were brought back by soldiers; others went by organized relocation. The influx of freed slaves into these Midwestern states provoked a regional debate over racial boundaries that simultaneously stiffened white resistance and strengthened the activist resolve of black communities. Blacks aided in their own liberation by joining the Union Army and serving in such units as the 60th U.S. Colored Infantry (USCI). Military service would become an important basis for black men as they made their claims to citizenship. Former slaves joined pre-existing black communities in places like Keokuk, Iowa and helped build such institutions like the AME church and associations like the Prince Hall Masons.
Schwalm shows that emancipated blacks found free soil less than liberating. Even though Minnesota and Iowa gave blacks the right to vote in referendums of 1868, African-Americans faced economic discrimination and political proscription. During the three decades after the Civil War, Midwestern blacks fought for the rights of citizenship and full and equal participation in schools and on public transportation. They battled for the nation's memory as well. The men and women of emancipation's diaspora kept alive memories of slavery and emancipation through commemorations and written slave narratives, countering the strong currents of sectional reconciliation and a "tide of national forgetting." (262) Throughout this book, the author underscores the agency of black men and women.
Gender is central to Schwalm's analysis. She recovers the often buried history of black women and highlights their contribution to the black Midwestern diaspora. For instance, she argues that the flight of women and children from plantation and slaveholding households helped in accelerating slavery's downfall. Women as well as men were part of the black military experience, travelling with their husband's armies. After the Civil War, women did important work in church building as stewardesses and in public claims in denominational governance and behavior of church members. Females "played a central role in the fight for equal access to public education and public accommodations." (178). Schwalm extends her gendered analysis to men as well, arguing that military service was "a gendered and gendering experience."(107) For soldiers, manual and difficult labor was called "slave work" and therefore considered "emasculating." (124)
Schwalm presents the history of the black diaspora into the Reconstruction Midwest with impressive skill, learning, and insight. She creatively employs less familiar sources like commercial envelopes to recover popular conceptions of race. She compellingly...