A black man runs for president…in 1904.
With a slave for a father, George Edwin Taylor (1857–1925) was born in Arkansas. Orphaned young, he came of age in La Crosse, Wis., where thanks to his foster family he received a classical education rich in language and oratory. He became a reporter, editor and publisher of newspapers that championed the causes of farmers and workingmen. From mentors like publisher “Brick” Pomeroy, a founder of the Greenback Party, and political insurgent Frank “White Beaver” Powell, Taylor learned and perfected the fiery language of populism. Following a series of third-party alliances, a move to Iowa and a brief flirtation with the Republicans, Taylor allied with the Democrats for more than a decade before emerging as the “standard-bearer of the National Negro Liberty Party.” Mouser (A Slaving Voyage to Africa and Jamaica: The Log of the Sandown, 1793-1794, 2002, etc.) forthrightly concedes the difficulty of reconstructing Taylor’s life—no personal papers survive—and acknowledges that even periods of years go missing. We learn almost nothing about Taylor’s three wives or of the health issues that apparently plagued him. Receiving only 2,000 votes and getting crushed by Theodore Roosevelt in a presidential election normally wouldn’t warrant even the slight biographical sketch the author dutifully attempts, but Taylor’s work as a writer and activist commands our attention for two reasons. First, Barack Obama’s historic election has heightened interest in all his antecedents, however obscure. Second, Taylor’s career opens a window on the first stirrings of independent black politics. His uncommon background and training, his migration from farm/labor causes to race-centered issues and his peculiar place in the era’s black political firmament—caught between the eastern intellectual establishment led by W.E.B. Du Bois and the waning Southern school embodied by Booker T. Washington—all offer an unusual perspective on the larger story of an emerging consciousness that would came to fruition more than 100 years later.
A necessarily sketchy but worthwhile contribution to our understanding of black political history.