Decades Before the Civil War, Black Activists Organized for Racial Equality

tags: racism, civil rights, African American history

Kate Masur is professor of history at Northwestern University. A finalist for the Lincoln Prize, she is the author of Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction.

Excerpted from UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction. Copyright (c) 2021 by Kate Masur. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


In summer 1836, white residents of Cincinnati rioted, not for the first time, against their black neighbors. On this occasion, the Ohioans rallied first against the city’s newly established abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, destroying editor James Birney’s printing press and throwing the pieces into the Ohio River. From there they rampaged through black neighborhoods, attacking businesses and looting private homes.

Ohio was a free state, but African Americans living there were subject not only to periodic white lawlessness but also to explicitly racist laws. The so-called “black laws,” which the state legislature began passing in 1804, required black residents to register with county officials (which included showing proof that they were legally free, getting landowners to post bonds on their behalf, and paying a fee), forbade African Americans from testifying in court cases involving whites, and reserved public education for white children only. Separately, the state constitution declared that only white men were entitled to vote.

Despite such strictures, Ohio and other destinations north of the Ohio River looked promising to free and enslaved black people hoping to leave the states where slavery was legal. According to U.S. Census figures, the black population of Ohio grew steadily in the first half of the 19th century, climbing from 9,568 to 17,342 between 1830 and 1840, for example. While this population only amounted to one percent of the state’s total population, the activism of black Ohioans, both in its success and failures, offer a window into this country’s first civil rights movement.

On arriving in southern towns and hamlets, black Ohioans immediately began building institutions and working to educate their children. The state’s first independent Black church was founded in Cincinnati in 1815; by 1833, the state was home to more than 20 AME churches with a total membership of around 700 people. In 1834, African Americans in Chillicothe formed the Chillicothe Colored Anti-Slavery Society and announced it in a local newspaper. Black Ohioans were active in Freemasonry and organized myriad self-help societies. Wherever they could, Black men and women helped fugitives from slavery make their way to safety, sometimes risking their own lives in the process.

Still, direct protest against racist state laws was risky. As a new phase of anti-slavery organizing began in the 1830s, white abolitionist lecturers often faced violent mobs seeking to silence them and run them out of town. For black Ohioans, the danger was even greater. Vulnerable to being fired from work, mobbed and driven off their own properties, African Americans’ precarity was heightened by the fact that the law prohibited them from testifying in court cases involving whites.

Those circumstances make it all the more remarkable that in 1837, more than three decades after statehood, African Americans mobilized to petition the general assembly to repeal the black laws and support schools for their children. The movement began in Cleveland.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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