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

Kate Masur in Smithsonian:

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.

More here.