For Labor, Race, and Liberty: George Edwin Taylor, His Historic Run for the White House, and the Making of Independent Black Politics. By Bruce L. Mouser. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. 253 pp.
Understandably, the blurb on this book makes the point that a century or so before Barack Obama ran for the presidency, the little-known George Edwin Taylor was the first African American ticketed as a political party's nominee for president of the United States. The author, Bruce Mouser, reflects on some "uncanny" similarities too--both men were raised by single mothers, were cared for by surrogate parents, attended private academies, worked as community organizers in the Midwest, and both men were forty-seven years old when they ran. But there was, of course, one striking difference. Obama received almost 70 million votes, Taylor, barely 2,000. Rather, the intriguing aspect of Taylor's life lies not in its present-day connections but in the light it sheds on northern black life and politics in the early Jim Crow era.
Mouser's biography is a triumph of detective work conducted over many years. By my count, he has consulted nearly 200 local newspapers in trying to piece together the elusive details of a fascinating life. Inevitably, we only learn about Taylor's own telling of his early life and can only guess at its resemblance to the truth. The story of the Arkansas-born orphan who wandered homeless through Civil War Alton, Illinois, aged four or five, before taking himself on a paddle wheeler to La Crosse Wisconsin, aged seven, and then ending up in the care of a kindly farmer and family who sent him to good schools, which enabled his brilliant intellect, grounded in self-discipline, to flourish, reads like the stuff of fiction--and particularly like the autobiographical trope of rags-to-success of the era. But who knows? The point is that it is a plausible story, in a Civil War and emancipation generation of suffering and migration. And it was certainly a useful story for an aspiring politician.
Mouser seeks to check the details of Taylor's...