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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 8. Race as a Social Construct—Structural Constraints on Race Mixing


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As plantations continued to grow, newly transported Africans were subjected to differing conditions in the colonies. Despite legal and social attempts to prohibit miscegenation, some consensual sexual relationships continued to occur. In response, the Virginia legislation instituted the one-drop rule, which defined as black anyone with a known African ancestor.1 The growing ideology of race and the enactment of the one-drop rule led to the permanent enslavement of Africans and replaced the indentured system. In 1670, the Virginia legislature passed a law defining slavery as a lifelong, inheritable racial status. After the passage of the law, many African American-Native Americans and African American-European Americans found themselves classified as black and forced into slavery.2 Though stricter restrictions were imposed, consensual sexual relationships and intermarriages continued. The ruling planters’ oligarchy began to fear the growing alliance between the enslaved and free blacks. They increasingly made complexion a mark of freedom and superiority. Elites fostered white cohesion as a means for involving the whole society in controlling enslaved people and preventing black insurrections.

To quell the threat of rebellion and arrest race mixing, the Virginia Assembly instituted a series of policies. In 1662, Virginia law made the mulatto child of an enslaved African woman a slave.3 Until 1691, the mulatto ← 22 | 23 → child of a white woman was free, but an act of that year imposed a penalty of five years forced servitude...

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