STARRED REVIEW
June 12, 2018

The unfairly forgotten story of African-American pioneers

By Anna-Lisa Cox
Review by

The role free black settlers played in opening up the Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War remains virtually unmentioned—and certainly unexamined—in most general American histories. To show the extent of this migration toward supposed freedom, Anna-Lisa Cox, a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, begins this study by citing the locales of 338 black farming settlements that were established between 1800 and 1860 in the territory that would ultimately become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

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The role free black settlers played in opening up the Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War remains virtually unmentioned—and certainly unexamined—in most general American histories. To show the extent of this migration toward supposed freedom, Anna-Lisa Cox, a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, begins this study by citing the locales of 338 black farming settlements that were established between 1800 and 1860 in the territory that would ultimately become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Cox then follows the story of how the ideals of racial equality enunciated in the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787 were ever-so-slowly eroded by the same greed and assertions of white supremacy that were then prevalent in America’s slave-holding South.

There are three main strands in Cox’s narrative—a running account of attitudes and actions toward slavery at the Federal level throughout this period; a sampling of local and statewide laws restricting black voting, occupancy and land ownership in the frontier Northwest; and sketches of specific black families that focus on the harsh work they did to carve out their farms from the forests while simultaneously confronting thickets of prejudices.

Even though slavery itself was illegal is this area, enterprising whites asserted their control by chaining their black workers to indentured servitude (for spans as long as 90 years) and requiring even land-owning blacks to carry identity papers. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made things even worse, enabling whites to seize and sell free blacks on the pretense that they were escaped slaves.

Conditions didn’t get measurably better in the region after the Civil War and the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote. Racial prejudice, envy and state-ignored violence continued. Today, evidence of the pioneering African-American presence exists only here and there in place names, still-functioning churches and local lore. The Bone and Sinew of the Land takes a step toward remembering it.

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The Bone and Sinew of the Land

The Bone and Sinew of the Land

By Anna-Lisa Cox
PublicAffairs
ISBN 9781610398107

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