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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 7. From African Indentured Servants to Enslaved People


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As the seventeenth century wore on, sources for European indentured servants declined. Labor compensation for European indentured servants rendered them a poor choice for the drudgery of the tobacco fields. Enslaved African labor, though perhaps socially less desirable, was in the end cheaper than indentured European labor since it was permanent. Additionally, British traders entered the slaving business, lowering the cost of importing Africans. The availability of enslaved people increased with the emergence of the Royal African Company in 1672 and expanded further when the slave trade opened to all British shippers in 1698. Wealthy landowners purchased enslaved people instead of committing to indentured contracts with servants. Enslaved people replaced European indentured and African servants. A dark complexion became an independent rationale for enslavement. In November 1682, the assembly enacted legislation that classified

… all servants except Turks and Moores … whether Negroes, Moores, Mollattoes or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not christian at the time of their first purchase of such servant by some christian, although afterwards, and before such their importation and bringing into this country they shall be converted to the christian faith; and all Indians who shall hereafter be sold by our neighbouring Indians, or any other trafiqueing with us as for enslaved people are hereby adjudged, ← 20 | 21 → deemed and taken to be enslaved people to all intents and purposes, any law, usage or customs to...

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