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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 20. Education in the Black Settlements


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Census records disclose both literate and illiterate people resided in all four of the free black settlements discussed in this manuscript. Education was not a neglected subject among community pioneers. There is substantial evidence that schools were erected for the children in each of the settlements. In Rumley, for example, the school was located near the Richardson farm, one-half mile north and one mile west of the Village. Some of the early teachers included James Guy, Molly Bluford, W.H. Hawkins, Addison Richardson, John Kennedy, Dora Stewart, Lula Stewart, and W.M. Fox.

All four villages were located near Wilberforce University in Greene County, half a mile from the county seat of Xenia, Ohio, midway between Columbus and Cincinnati. It was founded in 1855 by Daniel Alexander Payne, Bishop James Shorter, and Dr. John G. Mitchell.1 Wilberforce had the distinction of being the oldest school in the United States, or the world, founded by African Americans, for African Americans. The mission of the school was to provide educational advancement for African Americans in Ohio during an historical period when few opportunities were available.

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