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Invisible in Plain Sight

Self-Determination Strategies of Free Blacks in the Old Northwest


Jill E. Rowe

The Land Act of 1820 made it possible for settlers to begin to populate the West and added to the confiscation of land from Native Americans. Former landowners – a mix of Native American, African and European ancestry – migrated to the northern frontier and founded at least thirty well-defined free black communities between 1820 and 1850 in the Old Northwest, becoming an important safe haven and beacon of freedom.

Its notoriety and size grew as slaves often migrated to these locations after they were granted emancipation in the wills of slave owners who purchased land in the area for them to settle on. The newly free people found sanctuary as these communities were also rumored to shelter runaway slaves in their role as active participants in the Underground Railroad Movement.

However, the prosperity of blacks living in these villages angered some of the local whites – many of whom were migrating at the same time and were connected to local law officials and politicians. Archival documents reveal continued acts of terrorism perpetuated against blacks which heightened the importance of the strength of the communities they founded – specifically schools, churches, businesses, and intergenerational family structures – in providing a unified front that allowed them to bond and thrive in an environment that was not always conducive to their survival.

Invisible in Plain Sight: Self-Determination Strategies of Free Blacks in the Old Northwest provides a rare detailed examination of an often overlooked piece of the American tapestry. It is perfect reading for history classes in high school and college, as well as for history enthusiasts looking for something new.

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Chapter 1. Introduction


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The remembrance of social histories is crucial in memory formation, particularly for communities whose stories are missing in the larger canon of the history of a place. This monograph focuses on free blacks who migrated from Southeastern Virginia to the Old Northwest. Their successful journey illustrates a tradition of self-help that problematizes the view of the dominant colonial power that free blacks were inherently inferior and incapable of surviving as free persons.1 Examining historical, archival, and archaeological sources, the work uncovers the following about the free blacks who migrated from Virginia to Ohio: (1) the role of structural constraints on migration patterns; (2) the relationships between free blacks and Native Americans (specifically the tribes from the Virginia Confederacy of Indians, the Six Nations, and the tribes that inhabited the Old Northwest prior to Western Expansion campaigns); (3) their contributions to Western Expansion initiatives; (4) the impact of governmental policies and practices; (5) the evolving social construction of race in empowering them to migrate out of Virginia and into the Old Northwest; and (6) the role of institutions they created (e.g. family structure, churches, benevolent societies, schools, health practitioners, businesses) in keeping these communities intact. Once in the Old Northwest, these courageous settlers embraced self-determination by founding a number ← 1 | 2 → of villages and businesses, actively participating in the Underground Railroad, and leading rich social lives with others in the surrounding communities. Through the people’s narratives, we gain a firsthand perspective of...

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