People & Events
Race-based legislation in the North
1807 - 1850
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To the fugitive slave fleeing a life of bondage, the North was a land of freedom. Or so he or she thought. Upon arriving there, the fugitive found that, though they were no longer slaves, neither were they free. African Americans in the North lived in a strange state of semi-freedom. The North may had emancipated its slaves, but it was not ready to treat the blacks as citizens. . . or sometimes even as human beings.
Northern racism grew directly out of slavery and the ideas used to justify the institution. The concepts of "black" and "white" did not arrive with the first Europeans and Africans, but grew on American soil. During Andrew Jackson's administration, racist ideas took on new meaning. Jackson brought in the "Age of the Common Man." Under his administration, working class people gained rights they had not before possessed, particularly the right to vote. But the only people who benefited were white men. Blacks, Indians, and women were not included.
This was a time when European immigrants were pouring into the North. Many of these people had faced discrimination and hardship in their native countries. But in America they found their rights expanding rapidly. They had entered a country in which they were part of a privileged category called "white."
Classism and ethnic prejudices did exist among white Americans and had a tremendous impact on people's lives. But the bottom line was that for white people in America, no matter how poor or degraded they were, they knew there was a class of people below them. Poor whites were considered superior to blacks, and to Indians as well, simply by virtue of being white. Because of this, most identified with the rest of the white race and defended the institution of slavery. Working class whites did this even though slavery did not benefit them directly and was in many ways against their best interests.
Before 1800, free African American men had nominal rights of citizenship. In some places they could vote, serve on juries, and work in skilled trades. But as the need to justify slavery grew stronger, and racism started solidifying, free blacks gradually lost the rights that they did have. Through intimidation, changing laws and mob violence, whites claimed racial supremacy, and increasingly denied blacks their citizenship. And in 1857 the Dred Scott decision formally declared that blacks were not citizens of the United States.
In the northeastern states, blacks faced discrimination in many forms. Segregation was rampant, especially in Philadelphia, where African Americans were excluded from concert halls, public transportation, schools, churches, orphanages, and other places. Blacks were also forced out of the skilled professions in which they had been working. And soon after the turn of the century, African American men began to lose the right to vote -- a right that many states had granted following the Revolutionary War. Simultaneously, voting rights were being expanded for whites. New Jersey took the black vote away in 1807; in 1818, Connecticut took it away from black men who had not voted previously; in 1821, New York took away property requirements for white men to vote, but kept them for blacks. This meant that only a tiny percentage of black men could vote in that state. In 1838, Pennsylvania took the vote away entirely. The only states in which black men never lost the right to vote were Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.
The situation in what was then the northwest region of the country was even worse. In Ohio, the state constitution of 1802 deprived blacks of the right to vote, to hold public office, and to testify against whites in court. Over the next five years, more restrictions were placed on African Americans. They could not live in Ohio without a certificate proving their free status, they had to post a $500 bond "to pay for their support in case of want," and they were prohibited from joining the state militia. In 1831 blacks were excluded from serving on juries and were not allowed admittance to state poorhouses, insane asylums, and other institutions. Fortunately, some of these laws were not stringently enforced, or it would have been virtually impossible for any African American to emigrate to Ohio.
In Illinois there were severe restrictions on free blacks entering the state, and Indiana barred them altogether. Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin were no friendlier. Because of this, the black populations of the northwestern states never exceeded 1 percent.
African Americans also faced violence at the hands of white northerners. Individual cases of assault and murder occured throughout the North, as did daily insults and harassment. Between 1820 and 1850, Northern blacks also became the frequent targets of mob violence. Whites looted, tore down, and burned black homes, churches, schools, and meeting halls. They stoned, beat, and sometimes murdered blacks. Philadelphia was the site of the worst and most frequent mob violence. City officials there generally refused to protect African Americans from white mobs and blamed blacks for inciting the violence with their "uppity" behavior.
African Americans and their white allies did not simply sit back and accept Northern racism; they responded to it in a whole range of ways. Black people founded their own churches, schools, and orphanages. They created mutual aid societies to provide financial assistance to those in need. They helped fugitive slaves adjust to life in the North. Blacks and whites working together took legal measures to try to prevent the erosion of black rights and to protest against new restrictions. African Americans held a series of national conventions to decide on a collective course of action. Combined with these actions was the constant effort to end slavery, to protect fugitive slaves, and to save free black people from being kidnapped and sold South. Some states even passed Personal Liberty Laws to counteract federal legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. These protected fugitives and guaranteed some rights to African American citizens of that state.
"Expulsion of Negroes and Abolitionists from Tremont Temple"
Nell Irvan Painter on northern racism
Deborah Gray White on northern racism
Nell Irvan Painter on northern racism
Margaret Washington on northern racism
Part 4: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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