James B. Stewart calls Wendell Phillips the “Bono” (of U2 fame) of his time. Phillips was a nationwide star in the years before the Civil War. This weekend the Minneapolis neighborhood that bears his name celebrates Wendell Phillips’ 200th birthday.
Stewart describes Phillips as a handsome and charismatic. He was an aristocrat, among the wealthiest people of that time. He used his considerable powers of persuasion and oratory to argue against social injustice and class oppression. Phillips traveled the country, carrying the controversial abolitionist message — newspapers wrote about him and swelling crowds would meet his train as Phillips arrived in a new city, Stewart said:
If you can become a celebrity and if people know all about you before they ever meet you and then throng to hear what you have to say, they’re coming with a set of expectations that a talented speaker can then begin to play on in order to take very radical positions about the fact, say, that slavery outta be abolished immediately.
Stewart says Phillips helped make freedom for slaves a commonly held and common sense idea.
Phillips visited Minnesota once, and that visit, Stewart says, isn’t well documented.
So how did the Phillips neighborhood – just south of downtown – get his name?
Stewart says the New Englanders who settled in Minneapolis in the 1830s through 50s were very intent on putting an East Coast stamp on the city they thought of then as the “frontier.” Thus, he says, we have the Seward neighborhood, named for vocal abolitionist William H. Seward, who was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, and the Whittier neighborhood for John Greenleaf Whittier, an influential abolitionist and Quaker poet.
Stewart doesn’t know who specifically named the Phillips neighborhood or when they did it. But the area’s present-day demographics, Stewart says, makes the name appropriate:
The neighborhood named after the most radical of these New Englanders is the neighborhood that ends up containing the kinds of people that Wendell Phillips spoke for.
Tonight Stewart pays homage to his neighborhood’s namesake by dressing up and appearing as Wendell Phillips at St. Paul’s Church. He has a long coat, a top hat, a comb-over wig, side burns he’ll dye gray, and a period-appropriate abolitionist tie made by his wife. He’ll answer questions about what Phillips might think of the Phillips neighborhood now.