When we remember the end of slavery, we tend to give credit to white politicians arguing over the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington, D.C., or to a white general telling enslaved people in Texas that they are free (the moment marked by Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of emancipation being celebrated today).
But these images are incomplete. They leave out the African Americans who had been working to end slavery for generations before the Civil War, many of whom have been all but lost to history, forgotten pioneers on a lost frontier. These were some of our first abolitionists, living on the rough edges of the Northwest Territory — a region what later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin - but their actions changed the whole nation.
These black pioneers bought their own freedom and helped free others, ended bondage in entire states, created secret routes of the Underground Railroad, organized conventions that overturned racist laws and made the best case for equality through their own successful lives on the American frontier. They moved to the Northwest Territory starting in the earliest days of the Republic in hope of the promise offered by the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787, a document banning slavery and granting equal voting rights.
This governing Ordinance, written in the heady days of the new nation when the majority of states had equal voting rights for American men, regardless of the color of their skin, never once used the word “white” to define the rights of pioneers to that land. But this right was stolen as the whites forming state governments added the word “white” to definitions of citizenship, starting with Ohio in 1803.
But these activists were not deterred by this setback, instead fighting to force whites to live up the promise of the original governing ordinance. People like Polly Strong, enslaved in the Indiana Territory in the 1810s. A young woman of European, Native and African descent, Strong risked torture and assault from the man enslaving her in order to take her case for freedom to the newly created Indiana State Supreme Court in 1820. The risk paid off. The Court ruled in her favor, ending all forms of slavery and indentured servitude in that state.
Then there were the people I call freedom entrepreneurs — enslaved women and men who worked while in bondage to earn money to purchase their freedom. Among them was Frank McWorter, who purchased his wife Lucy’s freedom, then his own, for $800 each. He went on to found the town of New Philadelphia, Illinois, and with the money he earned from selling plots of land he bought the freedom of other family members.
Another freedom entrepreneur, Charles Moore, not only bought his own liberty but paid $2,200 to purchase his entire family’s freedom, a fortune at a time when a free laboring man could expect to make about 40 cents a day in the rural Northwest territory states. By 1840 Moore had founded a village in Ohio that he named Carthagena, in honor of the North African city of Carthage.
And there were not only men. The deed books of this region are filled with the names of female freedom entrepreneurs who did not have the chance to create their own last names, women such as Susan and Lilly who purchased themselves and their loved ones in the earliest territorial days. While enslavers turned a profit on the sale of their own children, Susan, Charles, Frank and so many other freedom entrepreneurs like them in antebellum America honored their families.
By the 1850s, a new generation of African-American abolitionists continued to fight for freedom and equality in the Northwest Territory states — even as many white Americans sought to stifle political debate and extend slavery’s reach across the nation.
Joshua Glover, who had freed himself by fleeing to Wisconsin, helped that state stand up to Southern enslavers and their supporters in the federal government who were intent upon trampling state’s rights. Aided by those in Wisconsin working to overturn the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, he risked much to take his case all the way to the state Supreme Court. The Wisconsin court ruled the law unconstitutional, determined to uphold the state’s rights and their citizens’ safety, even if those citizens were enslaved in other states. These defenders of freedom in Wisconsin were willing to break an unjust federal law in order to uphold those rights.
This courage, determination and willingness to risk consequences was common among African Americans in the Northwest Territory states. The young John Mercer Langston, who had been working for equal rights as a leader of the black convention movement since he was a teenager, decided to break every law in Ohio by running for political office. Though not allowed to vote in the state, he became Ohio’s first African-America lawyer, and eventually the nation’s first African-American elected official.
While the other African-American pioneers and entrepreneurs who lived in the Northwest Territory states before the Civil War may not have won elections, they had achieved something vitally important. The lives of these pioneers, the tens of thousands of whom settled and succeeded in the region, countered arguments about African American inferiority that strengthened the slave system.
In 1862, Willis Perry paid $100 to have a gravestone made for his wife’s grave. He and Nancy had both been born enslaved in North Carolina, and together the two of them wanted their history known to those who would come after them. They had been path breakers, exemplifying the extraordinary African-American pioneers of their time: she had been freed by abolitionist whites, he had been a freedom entrepreneur, toiling as another man’s property while paying to rent land to grow his crops on in order to earn a fortune to purchase himself.
But freedom was not enough, so they decided to settle on their own land in Indiana, living long lives on their farm in Randolph County. After she died, the stone he had paid so much for was placed on her grave. It read:
“I was a slave, freed by a lawsuit prosecuted by David White, the Quaker. May God bless his name! My husband’s freedom was bought for $675. He made the money on rented land. Who of you that tauntingly say of my race‚ ‘They can’t take care of themselves,’ have done better?”
Nancy and Willis Perry and the thousands of black pioneers who helped move this nation toward a future of greater equality, more justice and more freedom did not want their history forgotten. On this Juneteenth we should do our best to honor them and all the thousands of others who worked so hard to overcome slavery and injustice long before the day of emancipation this holiday commemorates.
Anna-Lisa Cox is author of ”The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality” and is a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.