Minnesota Historical Society

Peculiar Imbalance The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Minnesota, 1837–1869

$ 32.95


In the mid-1800s Minnesota was a place of dramatic change. Thriving, racially mixed communities, built by people who relied on each other for survival, suddenly welcomed powerful new settlers carrying rigid perceptions of race and culture. As Minnesota’s territorial politicians reached towards statehood, a government built on the ideals of liberty and equality cut down the status of men like former slave Jim Thompson, property owner and flourishing member of St. Paul’s Pig’s Eye community. Once-fluid racial identities were brought under the control of the governmental structure, and free men fully engaged in the lives of their respective communities were denied the right to vote, to run for office, and to serve on a jury. 

The peculiar imbalance of law and custom in race relations, however, resists easy categorization, as this surprising narrative shows. Officers at Fort Snelling, on the supposedly egalitarian frontier, bought and sold slaves. While Minnesota was still part of Iowa Territory, Jim Thompson rescued a ten-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and raped; despite the laws forbidding it, the black rescuer testified against the white assailant. And after Minnesota became a territory and then a state, disenfranchised black Minnesotans still enjoyed a distinctly middle-class existence. In 1857 Emily Grey, wife of a barber, was the only black woman in St. Anthony. Her husband’s business thrived, and she enjoyed “good, old-time neighborly calls” from her white neighbors. “There has not been a moment in my life when I regretted that my feet had touched the soil of Minnesota,” she wrote.

In this groundbreaking study, history professor William Green unearths the untold stories of African Americans who lived in Minnesota during its transformation from a wilderness frontier into a federally controlled state. Green contrasts their experiences with those of Indians, mixed bloods, and Irish Catholics, providing fascinating examples of the arbitrary social norms created by white racism—ones by which African Americans could thrive financially but not vote, and Irish Catholics could vote but not enjoy economic opportunity.  


  • By: William D. Green
  • Format: Cloth, 232 pages, 6x9 in.
  • Publisher: MNHS Press
  • ISBN 9780873515863

    A Peculiar Imbalance is a fascinating study of frontier democracy. Green cleverly juxtaposes the countervailing beliefs that whites held concerning American Indians, blacks, and immigrants in Minnesota’s statehood period. He exposes the rationale of early Democrats for withholding basic rights from those who could have altered the balance of political power. Engagingly written, this book provides great insight into the making and shaping of the early black, Indian, and mixed-blood communities in Minnesota. It is a must read for anyone attempting to understand the politics of the statehood period.” David Taylor, author of African Americans in Minnesota

    “Stories of race, class, power, and politics in nineteenth-century Minnesota come to life in Green’s revealing new book, A Peculiar Imbalance. Well researched, filled with a panoply of little-known historic figures, and driven by cogent storytelling, the study adds color and clarity to the state’s otherwise monochromatic history. The narrative explores the identity of a state forged in the intense, racially fueled fires leading up to the Civil War and tempered by decades of postwar struggle for civil rights.”
    Daniel Pierce Bergin, producer of the Emmy award–winning documentary North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers

    “One of the chief responsibilities of the historian is to bring to our collective consciousness an awareness of incidents or epochs about which we were not aware, or about which our knowledge is sketchy. In this important book Green reveals that the early road to racial equality in Minnesota was not paved with progressive thought; indeed, the struggle was lengthy and arduous. This book will enlighten and educate not only Minnesotans interested in the beginnings of civil rights discourse in their state but also persons everywhere who understand that the evolution of civil rights for all citizens is a continuum.”
    Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth

    William D. Green William Green received his B.A. in History from Gustavus Adolphus College, and his Ph.D. and J.D. from the University of Minnesota. He has published many pieces in history and law, including pieces in Minnesota History, The Journal of Law and Politics, as well as editorials in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

    Bill has given presentations for the Ramsey County Bar Association; the Friends of the Ramsey County Library; Unity Unitarian Universalist Church in St. Paul, Fort Snelling; the Minnesota Historical Society; William Mitchell Law School; the Minneapolis Rotary Club; the Minnesota African American Museum; and the Alexander Ramsey House.

    He is currently working on making historical documentaries and is designing an interdisciplinary course in association with Augsburg’s Film Studies Program. He continue to serve on the executive committee of the board of directors for Minnesota Historical Society; board director for the Minnesota Humanities Commission; and the advisory committee for the Great American History Theatre.

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