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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 4. Immigration of African Indentured Servants


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Simultaneously, the seventeenth century marked the beginning of the importation of Africans to the New World. The port of Luanda, Angola was the source of many of the Africans who arrived in seventeenth century Virginia.1 Early British colonists were accustomed to indentured servants who worked for their masters for a specified number of years to pay for their passage to the New World and their freedom. In the early colonies, what is now identified as chattel slavery did not exist. The concept of race had not been fully developed. With this in mind, early colonists’ main objective was to get their tobacco crops harvested at the lowest possible cost to them. In this way, they viewed the newly arriving Africans as servants and purchased their indentures from unscrupulous traders.

When Africans arrived in Virginia, they joined a society divided between European masters and servants. Those holding the position of master in this society harbored contempt for servants and could beat them to death without legal sanction. Indentured African and European servants began to form alliances through marriage, working, eating, sleeping, getting drunk, and eventually running away together. Many free blacks who were the result of mixed marriages assimilated in colonial Virginian society in the mid-seventeenth century. As the percentage of enslaved people increased, tensions between free blacks and slaveholders increased. ← 13 | 14 →

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