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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 9. African American Legal Status and the American Revolution


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During the American Revolution (1775–1783) people of color responded to Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, who offered by proclamation liberty to all indentured servants and enslaved people willing to put down the horrid rebellion against His Majesty. On November 17, 1775, Lord Dunmore, with forces reduced to just 300 men, offered to emancipate enslaved people who joined the Royal Army. Lord Dunmore’s promise of an Ethiopian Regiment attracted indentured Africans and enslaved people seeking freedom behind the British lines. Historians Michael McDonnell and Woody Holton contend that, on the Virginia militia’s side, “the contagion of liberty also sparked domestic insurrections within a number of household—sailors and artisans, apprentices and indentured servants all used the Revolution to carve out more liberty in their own lives.”1

Michael McDonnell contends that Virginia’s method of recruiting soldiers upset the balance of power between the gentry, the middling, and the common sort.2 He espouses the thesis that their recruitment tactics sparked a class struggle among whites regarding who was going to fight the war and who was going to foot the bill. McDonnell does not mention free blacks and indentured Africans in this discussion; however, the historic record supports their presence in the Virginia militia in the counties included in his analysis. Nonetheless, his work elucidates how the Virginia elite created class-based resentment for the ← 25 | 26 → war by trying to transform democratically run...

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