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Freedom, Slavery & The Midwest Slavery Bans

portrait of John Greene, an original settler
portrait of John Greene, an original settler

Freedom, Slavery & The Midwest Slavery Bans

The history of the African American Midwest is unlike any other region.

The history of African Americans, Midwest and slavery is unlike any other region of the United States. 

Slavery was both banned and protected in the Early Midwest.  In 1787, Congress enacted the early Midwest territory law, known as the Northwest Ordinance.  The law provided, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes…”

Right after, the law also said: “[A]ny person escaping into the [Midwest], from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”   

This was the first time Congress imposed a federal ban on slavery anywhere in the United States.  It was also the first time  —  even before the Constitution was written — Congress enacted a “Fugitive Slave Law“.

The Midwest slavery ban would be adopted by every Midwest state, starting with Ohio in 1803, with one exception. In 1821 Congress extended the ban throughout the Midwest, making one exception by allowing slavery in Missouri under the Missouri Compromise.

The slavery bans were at first riddled with loopholes.  Southerners migrated with enslaved African Americans to the Midwest, claiming they were “voluntary” servants.  U.S. Army officers brought black enslaved servants claiming the state and territory laws didn’t apply to them.  And enslaved African Americans were forced to work in the region’s mines — legally in Illinois, and illegally in Wisconsin.

It made the Midwest a paradox for African Americans: the region offered freedom to most, but not all.  It also did not provide equal rights, much less full citizens rights.  And it made the Midwest the “frontline” of the nation’s war over slavery until the Civil War.

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