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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 6. Alliances between European Indentured Servants and African Indentured Servants


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Seventeenth-century archival records attest to consensual couplings among indigenous people, indentured European servants, and indentured African servants in colonial Virginia. Intermixing increased through shared struggles brought on by harsh working conditions in the developing tobacco economy. As the plantation system evolved, the classes further diverged, becoming a two-tiered society between elite planters and objectified and degraded servants. Indigenous people and indentured European and African servants formed an alliance fostered by shared working conditions and through familial ties.

As the seventeenth-century, agrarian economy continued to develop, the demand for laborers intensified. Laboring chores included harvesting tobacco and corn, defense of the settlement, and maintenance of tools and equipment.1 Thousands of laborers were conscripted into the labor system. By mid-century, laborers were living longer and becoming freed men and women. This soon became a problem. Freed men demanded land and other perquisites of their free status. These circumstances compelled British colonists to develop a more permanent and cheaper labor force. As alliances grew stronger between indigenous people, African servants, and indentured European servants, their racially mixed offspring began to demand freedom and better ← 18 | 19 → working conditions from wealthy planters. Production in the tobacco industry required a servile and disciplined work force. Laborers organized and massively rebelled against elite planters, threatening the availability of a labor force needed for successful tobacco crop harvests. In response, ruling oligarchs contemplated their dilemma of ensuring a...

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