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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 17. The Village of Carthagena


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· 17 ·


August Wattles and the Emlen Institute

August Wattles, a philanthropist from Lebanon, Connecticut, began his career as a student in both the Oneida Institute and Lane Seminary.1 While attending the Lane Seminary, Wattles was one of several students who rebelled against the conditions at the Lane Seminary that prohibited the student’s formation of an abolition society. After withdrawing from the Seminary, Wattles joined the American Anti-slavery Society where he became a lecturing agent. In that capacity, Wattles aided newly freed blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio by collecting information about the quality of their lives, encouraging them to establish reform societies, support schools, acquire trades, and purchase land to become farmers. As he interacted with newly freed blacks in various urban communities throughout northwestern Ohio, he began to question the value of education for blacks in the urban environment. In 1835, he began advocating for a migration scheme to a rural Ohio community where their education could flourish. To attract migrants, Wattles purchased 160 acres of land in Mercer County, Ohio and planned to build a manual labor school there. Mercer County was a sparsely settled county and the nearest market was forty miles away. Wattles envisioned it as an oasis for newly freed blacks. ← 69 | 70 →

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