In the 1850s, Midwestern states used harsh laws to deny free African-Americans wealth and property.
William Brown managed to get across the river safely, finding work in a small rural Illinois community close to the state’s border with Indiana. He would have known of the new anti-immigration laws, but must have been willing to risk breaking them for a better life. But a sheriff named John Watts soon arrested Mr. Brown for making his illegal crossing. When Mr. Brown could not pay the $50 fine the State of Illinois required of him, Sheriff Watts put him in chains on the Lawrence County courthouse steps and tried to sell him at auction to the highest bidder.
This was the 1850s and Mr. Brown, an African-American, was one of many victims of some of the earliest and harshest anti-immigration laws in America — laws created by white people in Midwestern states determined to keep free black people out.
The river William Brown crossed was the Wabash River, which runs along much of the border between Illinois and Mr. Brown’s home state, Indiana. Sheriff Watts was enforcing an 1853 law created by Illinois whites to add teeth to the state’s 1848 Constitution, which barred African-Americans from entering the state. Senator Stephen A. Douglas (the “Little Giant,” best known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln) strongly defended the State Constitution’s ban by arguing in 1850 that without it, Illinois would be filled with “old and decrepit and broken-down negroes” — a version of the “dumping ground” theme that’s been used by white politicians for so long.
In reality, Senator Douglas had arrived as an immigrant from Vermont in 1833, decades after many free African-Americans had helped to settle Illinois. Indeed, there might not have been a state of Illinois for him to move to if African-Americans had not bravely fought in the Wabash River Valley during the War of 1812.
Because Mr. Brown could not pay the $50 fine (and all the costs of his arrest and imprisonment), the law gave Sheriff Watts the right to sell Mr. Brown to the highest bidder to recover the county’s costs.
We know little about William Brown, but we do know that he was a free man. If he had been enslaved, Sheriff Watts would have worked to find his enslaver and return him. The sheriff would have then received a handsome payout by the federal government for upholding the Federal 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, pushed through by a white Southern slaveholding elite intent on trampling the few rights granted by free states to African-Americans. But the primary concern of Illinois whites at that time was not enslaved people entering Illinois; it was the free people who were continuing to thrive and to rise in what had once been the Northwest Territory of the United States.
By 1860 there were more than 330 rural settlements home to propertied African-American farmers in the five states from that territory — Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. This region had seen the nation’s first Great Migration, the movement of tens of thousands of free black pioneers onto this frontier starting just after the American Revolution. There should have been many more settlements. But a majority of whites in those states — whites who had often arrived after African-American pioneers — were doing everything they could to keep free black people out.
Oddly, in the early 1820s Illinois whites were willing to pick up arms and fight for the right of African-Americans to enter Illinois, as long as they were enslaved. It was the fact that Illinois was home to free African-American pioneers that seemed to bother so many of the state’s whites. Those pro-slavery whites were fighting both other whites and free African-American pioneers over whether Illinois should become a slave state.
Things had not always been like this. Before the Louisiana Purchase, before Iowa or Texas, this territory — the United States’ first — was popularly known as “the Great West.” And its rich soil and forested land were highly desired, causing wars, conflicts and even genocide throughout the 1700s as nations fought to gain control of it from its rightful inhabitants, the Native Americans.
Just a few years after the American Revolution, a group of seven white men worked together to write a document that would govern this new frontier — the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787. In it, they included a clause outlawing slavery, making the Northwest Territory the largest region in the New World up to that time to have done so. And they also left out the word “white” in the document, opening up the potential for equal voting rights to all men, regardless of their color. And, as David McCullough showed in his book “The Pioneers,” African-American pioneers to the territory were voting. But when the white representatives to Ohio’s first state constitutional convention gathered in 1802, a majority decided to reverse the Northwest Territorial Ordinance, adding the word “white” to who could vote, stealing voting rights from African-Americans. And whites in every state formed from that territory would follow suit.
Ohio was not the only place to have early free and propertied African-American pioneers who were aware of their rights. African-Americans had been some of the earliest settlers of the Northwest Territorial frontier. Lawrence County, Ill. — where William Brown had been put up for sale in the 1850s — had been home to African-American pioneers before Illinois became a state in 1818. The Morrises, Andersons, Tanns and many other African-American families had been some of the earliest American pioneers in Lawrence County. They had come as propertied free blacks, building Fort Allison along the Wabash River before the War of 1812. They founded the integrated and abolitionist Mariah Creek Baptist Church in the early 1800s, and had fought in the War of 1812 under William Henry Harrison.
But no amount of success, patriotism or pride could protect these African-American pioneers, for these anti-immigration laws were a backlash against a rising and increasingly successful population of propertied African-Americans across the Northwest Territory states.
By 1851 whites in Indiana and Illinois created new state constitutions and passed laws completely barring any further free African-Americans from entering the states they helped to settle and defend. Whites in other Northwest Territory states from Ohio to Michigan passed laws to make those states unwelcoming to African-Americans. There were the notorious “black code bonds,” which required free African-Americans to find whites to sign for their good behavior and sign up or deposit a bond ranging from $500 to $1,000 in the earliest years of the 1800s, a time when a nice 100-acre farm in Massachusetts with a home and barns on it could be purchased for around $1,000. Ohio whites taxed propertied African-Americans for public schools their children were banned from attending, and whites in almost every one of those Northwest Territory states made it impossible for African-Americans to testify against whites in court.
And before each of these prejudiced laws was passed there was a rise in violent hate speech, much of it threatening genocidal violence against free people of African descent in those states. As the Saint Louis University scholar Silvana Siddali points out, this hate speech was overwhelmingly targeted at African-Americans and broadly published in newspapers. Many of the politicians had successful and propertied African-American residents in their districts, yet their hate speech was filled with false and prejudiced claims about the essential laziness and violence of African-Americans.
This hate speech and the subsequent theft of their rights did not go unnoticed or unchallenged. African-Americans pushed back, creating “Colored Conventions” that worked to undo the damage that racist whites had done in their states. In 1844, African-Americans who were gathering in their own political convention in Ohio, published their opening address asserting that “the Declaration of Independence, the American Bill of Rights, the Ordinance of 1787, as well as the Political Creed of every intelligent, generous and patriotic freeman, are clearly violated, nay shamefully desecrated, by that feature of our constitution that renders the color of the skin a qualification for electors.”
Most of these anti-immigration laws were not reversed until well after the Civil War was won — a victory made possible by African-American soldiers from across the Midwest, including William Brown. Mr. Brown survived the State of Illinois’s attempt to steal his freedom, and when it became possible for him to fight he volunteered from Indiana, his home state, to join the Union army, fighting in the terrible “Battle of the Crater” in Petersburg, Va. But even after he and other black soldiers from the Midwest had helped to preserve the Union and end slavery, whites in most of the Midwest still wanted to preserve white supremacy. When African-Americans started to arrive in Southern Illinois during the Civil War, they were described as “a worthless negro population” and “locusts.” And Indiana did not repeal all of the laws against African-American immigration in the state until 1881, 16 years after the end of the Civil War.
Now, as our own government takes a harsher and less humane stand against migrants, we would do well to remember the old anti-immigration laws that destroyed the rights of early patriots and pioneers all in the name of preserving the prosperity and pride of people who considered themselves “white.”
Anna-Lisa Cox is a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, a visiting scholar at Hope College, and the author of “The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality.”
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