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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 25. Living Conditions in the Black Settlements


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During the Jim Crow era, the economic experience of blacks in the rural north was similar on a qualitative level to the experiences of rural blacks elsewhere in the United States. They were the lowest on the economic totem pole. However, the employment experience in these rural black communities was different from their rural agrarian southern brethren. Both were dependent on employment in agriculture whether they owned their own farms or not. Environmental factors determined by weather prohibited northern rural black communities from maintaining employment on a yearly basis. Thus many were driven to migrate to larger cities in search of work in the domestic or laboring realm. As they migrated they maintained their connections to extended family members in the rural sectors.

Extended families and/or expanded families and households were a dominant feature of these free black communities, serving as the mechanism that held them together even as they migrated to neighboring cities. An examination of the Marriage Records of Shelby County reveals that many free blacks married other free blacks, newly manumitted blacks, formerly enslaved blacks, whites, and Native Americans in the area.1 The rural environment created a low percentage of one-parent households and, at times, more male-headed than female-headed. This differed from the urban environment, which not only created higher percentages of one-parent households, but also created a ← 101 | 102 → situation in which a very high percentage of these households were...

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