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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 23. Benevolence Societies in the Black Settlements


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In the 1870s and 1880s, historical records divulge that residents from the four settlements organized a number of mutual aid, secret, and benevolent societies. DuBois describes the formation of these societies in other northern black communities and details them in the following way: “Essentially all that was required to join these societies was a small initiation fee and small monthly payments. These payments supported members when they became ill, or in the case of the death of a member these fees went to pay funeral expenses and help the widow.”1 Some organizations formed in these settlements included the Occidental Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the United Brothers of Friendship, the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, and the Morning Star Lodge.2 The presence of early social organizations illustrates the agency of area blacks in pooling their resources to help each other and become self-sufficient, which made these organizations central to the social life of the black community. They provided social intercourse and insurance against misfortune. Next to the church they were the most popular organizations. ← 97 | 98 →


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