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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 21. The Importance of the Church in the Black Settlements


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Religion played a vital role in the life of people living in all four villages, and churches were the center of social life. Ministers traveled between the villages and in this way served as bridges between the communities. The churches are also an example of the self-help tradition among residents, who held chicken dinners and other community activities to support the church on a yearly basis.

The presence of churches is a crucial finding when examining the four settlements’ role in the Underground Railroad. Small rural congregations in free black Midwestern communities included Underground Railroad operatives who were openly meeting with one another at conventions, conferences, and church and social gatherings for worthy and respectable causes.1 AME churches were the most frequent magnets binding families to one another and connecting the settlements to the larger world. Free blacks with their churches, literary societies, fraternal orders, and other institutions simultaneously ensured their own freedom and the liberty of family and friends as well as that of strangers.

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