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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 26. Health and Wellness in the Black Settlements


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· 26 ·


The greatest destroyer of rural families was disease. In the North, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and organic heart disease were the three greatest killers of blacks. These diseases also afflicted whites, but not all at the same rate. Percentages of deaths caused by pneumonia and organic heart diseases were nearly comparable, but percentages of deaths caused by tuberculosis was nearly three times as great in the black population as it was in the white population. Tuberculosis was so destructive by the early part of the twentieth century that the U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service issued a pamphlet entitled, “A Working Plan for Colored Anti-tuberculosis League.”1 The health service felt that the overcrowded and unsanitary condition of blacks in their living situation was the prime cause of the disease.

Historical data indicate that in the rural North, African American mortality increased and fertility declined after the Civil War and remained low in the twentieth century. Census data support this trend, illustrating that rural African Americans had higher death rates and larger frequencies of tuberculosis, malaria, measles, pneumonia, scrofula, and venereal diseases between 1880 and 1900.2 Rural African Americans had higher levels of biological stress, nutritional deficiencies, and diseases when compared to rural European Americans. ← 103 | 104 →

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