April 2021

Until Justice Be Done

By Kate Masur
Review by
Masur’s scholarly but accessible history demonstrates how thoroughly racism pervaded both the North and the South during the 19th century.
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The history of the abolitionist movement in antebellum America is generally well known. Most Americans have heard about the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Northerners’ opinions about slavery, and they’ve read about the underground railroad. Recent novels, movies and television series have also heightened public awareness of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown.

There was also a struggle to win civil rights for free Black people in the North during this time, but that history has been more obscure—until now. Kate Masur, a professor of history at Northwestern University, brings this critical chapter of our history to light in Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction.

Masur’s scholarly but accessible history demonstrates how thoroughly racism pervaded both the North and the South during the 19th century. New states, including so-called “free states” such as Ohio, Illinois and Oregon, tried to prohibit free African Americans from buying land or settling within their borders. Black sailors who ended up in Southern ports were frequently jailed until they could prove their free status—and often enslaved and sold when they couldn’t pay the costs of their imprisonment. Most states prevented Black people from testifying in court against white Americans, and only a handful allowed Black men to vote.

Most importantly, Until Justice Be Done demonstrates that the fight for equality and justice is as old as the republic itself. With meticulous research, Masur lays out the history of Black Americans’ struggle to be recognized as citizens—a struggle that started before the ink on the Constitution was dry. Their fight set the stage for the formation and victory of the antislavery Republican Party in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation; the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; and the first Civil Rights Act.

While these activists’ victories weren’t total—many of their achievements were later reversed—their efforts laid essential groundwork for future generations, including our own. Masur’s book is both instructive and inspiring as it charts the path to freedom from the 1800s to today.

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