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Early Midwest Migration & Free Black Settlements

a group of black schoolchildren and their teachers standing in front of a schoolhouse
a group of black schoolchildren and their teachers standing in front of a schoolhouse

Early Midwest Migration & Free Black Settlements

Black migration to the Midwest began before the United States was even founded.

African American migration to the Midwest began even before the United States was founded.  French-American people of color, enslaved and free, came to the region with European colonizers in the 17th and 18th centuries.  

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, an Afro-French-Haitian migrant, trader, and early migrant during this period established a homestead on Lake Michigan that would grow into the future city of Chicago.

African Americans began migrating to the Early Midwest after slavery was banned in the region under the Midwest Territory law called the Northwest Ordinance.

Cincinnati was the destination of many African Americans.  By 1830, over 2,000 blacks lived in the city.  Though the city’s 1829 race riots and Ohio’s exclusionary Black Laws prompted many to leave, some 3,000 called Cincinnati home by 1850, one of the largest free black communities in pre-Civil War America.  

Many Free Black Settlements in rural areas of the Early Midwest were also founded during the period.  

In Indiana alone in the 1800s African Americans founded more than 60 such communities.  One such Indiana settlement, signalling the aspirations of its residents, gave itself the name “Colored Freedom.”  

In Ohio, a vibrant community in Chillicothe was founded by African Americans formerly enslaved at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, including Eston and Madison Hemings, themselves sons of Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

In Illinois, the settlement of New Philadelphia was founded by Frank McWhorter, a formerly enslaved African American.  McWhorter sold lots in the new town, using his profits to buy the freedom of his family members still enslaved across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  In southern Illinois, African Americans who had been enslaved under Illinois’  indentured servant slavery loopholes organized a free black settlement, proudly naming it Africa.

Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin was founded by formerly enslaved African Americans from Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas.  At its peak the black residents of the town owned nearly 1,000 acres of farmland.

During this “First Migration” by African Americans to the Midwest, many found freedom and opportunity, but also racism,  inequality, and oppression – or, as historian Nikki Taylor has termed it, promise and persecution.

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