African Americans' resistance to the violence of enslavers and other racists during the Fugitive Slave Act era has been aided by some anti-racist Midwest allies.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, along with the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri focused national and world attention on the history, legacy, and present-day reality of police violence against communities of color in the Midwest.
Police inaction has likewise denied African Americans equal protection of the law throughout the history of the Midwest. In the 1829 Cincinnati riot, city policemen stood by as dozens of African Americans were killed and neighborhoods burned, before finally attempting to stop the violence.
The Midwest’s 200-some lynchings were often similarly facilitated by white police who refused to protect African Americans, in some cases physically handing them over to lynch mobs.
The history of Midwest law officers before the Civil War is more complex. Many Midwesterners, citizens and officials alike, refused to assist enslavers seeking to re-enslave African Americans who had escaped from their bondage. In some cases, such as the Crosswhite Standoff in Michigan and Salem Standoff in Iowa, law officers assisted in foiling enslavers’ efforts to kidnap African Americans and return them to the South. In fact, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted precisely because Midwesterners and other Northerners refused to assist in the capture and enslavement of African Americans from the “free soil” Midwest.
In East St. Louis 1917, Chicago 1919, and Detroit 1967, Federal troops and National Guard forces were often implicated in brutality. Ida B. Wells, in her account of the East St. Louis violence, The East St. Louis Massacre: Greatest Outrage of the Century, quotes a news account of white men shooting an African American, then beating and maiming the dying man, as National Guardsmen stood idly by.
[The man] lay on the pavement, a bullet wound in his head and his skull bare in two places. A few steps away were a Sergeant and several guardsmen. The Sergeant approached the ring of men around the prostrate Negro. “This man is done for,” he said. “You’d better get him away from here.” No one made a move to lift the blood-covered form, and the Sergeant walked away, remarking, when I questioned him about an ambulance, that the ambulances had quit coming.
The militarization of police departments in the Midwest following urban unrest in the 1960s has pushed the racially disparate police violence into a new phase, with African Americans repeatedly being killed without cause and incarcerated at disproportionate rates.
In recent years, high profile episodes of police brutality in the Midwest have made national and international headlines, including the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. White’s killing spurred the launch of the Black Lives Matter grassroots movement; the Floyd murder has spurred officials from Congress to police departments to seek public policy solutions. Yet racial justice in the Midwest appears a far-off goal.