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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 18. The Village of Wren


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The Village of Wren was another free black settlement established in 1837 in Van Wert County, approximately two miles from the Indiana State line. The center of this settlement was the crossroads east of the hamlet of Wren and north of Schumm—a German community. It was located twenty-five miles northwest of Carthagena. An old trail that ran north of St. Mary’s River and connected Anthony Wayne’s forts at St. Mary’s and Fort Wayne, Indiana marked the borders of the settlement. Early institutions included an AME Church, a school, and an orphan’s institute. There were forty-three blacks and “mulattos” listed there in the 1850s census. The number increased to seventy-five by 1870. This thriving community once included the St. Mary’s AME Church, founded in 1843. It also included the Second Baptist Church. Details are few concerning the Educational Orphan’s Institute, which was organized there in 1853. However, it is known that August Wattles reported expenses for two journeys to Van Wert in 1837 during a tour sponsored by the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. His purpose was to “lecture to the colored people and teach school.”

It is not clear why these black people came here to settle. The birthplaces listed in the census records are so diverse that it is unlikely that they came as a group, from one or two plantations, or as emancipated enslaved people. ← 81 | 82 → Of the thirteen heads of household, six different...

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