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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 12. The Relationship between Western Expansion and Free Blacks


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As Virginia began to enforce the Black Codes and racial categorization became canonized, free blacks were greatly impacted. Responding to the restrictive codes and circumventing the growing hostilities against free blacks, many migrated to counties in northern Virginia, Kentucky, and present-day West Virginia.1 According to historians Luther Porter Jackson and Tommy Bogger, a number of free blacks were skilled artisans (e.g. blacksmiths, shoe cobblers, barbers, and coopers) and semi-skilled workers (e.g. waggoneers, domestics, washerwomen).2 Prior to 1805, they earned the respect of white businesspersons and obtained easy access to credit and steady employment. Having employment, many free blacks turned their earnings to good accounts and brought property. Others remained renters and acquired a good reputation as tenants. The typical farm among free blacks was not a commercial enterprise but a farm home. Further, in some Virginia counties free blacks rivaled enslaved people as sources of farm labor. Some served in the militia and in Indian Removal Campaigns. These activities provided the skill sets needed as they purchased land opening in the Old Northwest and migrated there to develop settlements.

In the late 1820s, free blacks experienced a steady decline in status that continued throughout the antebellum period. Tensions about their potential ← 41 | 42 → role in insurrections grew with the publication of David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly to those of the...

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