Christopher Lehman Q&A

June 8, 2020
Christopher Lehman won a Minnesota Book Award for his book on slavery.

“Since George Floyd’s killing, I’ve come across people who have inaccurately said, in essence, ‘Why is this unrest happening here? Minnesota never had slaves!’ So without an understanding of how Minnesota began, how can we possibly understand where Minnesota is now?”

When did you get the idea to write Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders In The North Star State?

Since my arrival in Minnesota in 2002, I’ve researched the presence of African-Americans in Minnesota. About five or six years ago, a new wave of books about American slavery’s role in developing American capitalism began getting published, and I thought about applying that approach to Minnesota. I started with real estate deeds in Minnesota, because they are accessible documents that show money changing hands from slaveholders to Minnesotans, and vice-versa. My studying of these documented transactions statewide involving slaveholders resulted in Slavery’s Reach.

When did you discover the story of the man who lived in St. Paul in 1860 who had also been listed on the census as a slave owner in Maryland?

The story of the St. Paul resident with a slave in Maryland, Harwood Iglehart, was my first finding five years ago that led me to look at real estate. I was surprised to find an active southern slaveholder holding residence in Minnesota.

What role did tourism play when slaveholders from such states as Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri came to Minnesota to buy real estate and then leave right away?

Tourism was very important, because cities and towns that attracted southerners for longer stays gave them more time to buy things from Minnesotans. By 1860 Minnesota was so reliant on southern tourism revenue that state lawmakers tried to make Minnesota a slave state, despite having already been a free state for two years.

You’ve written that several communities in Minnesota would not exist if not for slavery, including St. Cloud. Do you think most Minnesotans were unaware of this until your book?

Previous historians wrote about southerners being attracted to Minnesota, but they didn’t specifically find out if those southerners were slaveholders and what was the extent of their holdings of slaves.

You wrote about Sylvanus Lowry, the first mayor of St. Cloud, who bought a northern third of the city and invited slaveholders to purchase land from him. How is Lowry thought of in St. Cloud? 

Lowry is well-known in central Minnesota, as is his feud with abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm. However, previous historians just focused on Lowry’s sympathy for southerners and supporters of slavery; they didn’t look into how southerners financed his dominance over St. Cloud or how much of that funding came specifically from slaveholders.

When you work on a book project do you love all the research or are you eager to get to the writing?

I truly enjoy the research process. I don’t seriously work on writing a book until I think I have a good narrative from my research and can tell good stories from it.

In light of George Floyd, how important is it that people understand our history?

Understanding history is extremely important. Since Floyd’s killing, I’ve come across people who have inaccurately said, “Why is this unrest happening here? Minnesota never had slaves!” Without an understanding of how Minnesota began, how can we possibly understand where Minnesota is now?

What is the next book you hope to write?

I’ll probably write either about my family tree or another book about Minnesota’s history concerning African-Americans.