When Anti-Immigration Meant Keeping Out Black PioneersRoundup
tags: immigration, American History
Fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research.
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.
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