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The United States’ first civil rights movement.

By Kellie Carter Jackson —

Racism is not regional. I often hear people refer to it as though it were trapped in the South. White Northerners who are appalled by the blatant racism around them will say things like “This isn’t Mississippi” or “Take that attitude back to Alabama.” But whether white Northerners like to recognize it or not, slavery was in every colony in the United States for more than a century and a half. It was part of the fabric of America—all of America. After Charleston, South Carolina, New York City had the largest urban enslaved population; by the mid-18th century, one in five people in the city of New York was Black. It is important to note that the North was not the utopian refuge that public memory likes to romanticize it as. Prosperous Black communities in places like Philadelphia during the antebellum period were more the exception than the rule. And even the City of Brotherly Love experienced several major anti-Black riots in the 1830s and ’40s.

Another frequent misconception when it comes to antebellum Northern politics is the myth that most Northerners were abolitionists. There is an important distinction between those in the North who were antislavery and those who were abolitionist. Many in the North hated slavery for how it undermined the value of free labor, and some also detested it for its brutal practices, but being antislavery did not make one an abolitionist committed to the immediate end of the institution of slavery. And even among abolitionists, not all believed in the fullness of Black humanity or the equality of the races. It was entirely possible during the antebellum period to hold both antislavery and anti-Black sentiments. As Frederick Douglass noted, “Opposing slavery and hating its victims has become a very common form of abolitionism.”

Throughout the 19th century (and even now), racist ideas about Black poverty and Black criminality guided the laws of the day—and this was true in the North as well as the South. States like Ohio and Illinois did not want to be held responsible for the well-being of African Americans, who they believed would drain their resources or compete with white people for labor and wealth. Northern state constitutions were often ambiguous about defining citizenship and civil rights. Free Black Americans had to continually contest anti-Black laws and norms that left Black people with no guarantees as to how they might obtain and maintain equal protection under the law.

Just as the long history of racism in the North tends to be forgotten, so too does the long history of those who sought to dismantle its racist and anti-Black laws. While it is common to cite the civil rights movement or perhaps the Reconstruction period as the first attempt at securing an egalitarian United States, these struggles began much earlier. Historian Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction helps exhume the often neglected history of both Northern racism and slavery and those Black freedom struggles in the 19th century that sought to abolish them. A clear and compelling account, Masur’s book pushes us to rethink our understanding of anti-Blackness in the North and the activism that helped free Black people through the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and granted them citizenship and equal protection under the law. Despite legal setbacks, unfavorable court decisions, and white supremacy, Black and white activists and advocates in the 19th century managed to make their belief in fairness and inclusion concerning Black civil rights the mainstream view.

Many have written about the 13th and 14th amendments, but the origins of their underlying principles can be found, Masur argues, in the 18th century and in an often ignored history of Black activism that goes back as far as the early days of the American republic. Her earlier book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C., focused on this history in the context of the District of Columbia—both in terms of its local government and as the seat of the national government. In Until Justice Be Done, Masur widens her geographic scope and considers how the struggle for equality manifested itself all over the country, particularly in the Midwestern states. By doing so, she reminds us that Black activism and the fight for civil rights were found not only in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. She also reminds us that until the North recognized the need to dismantle its own racist and exclusionary practices, it held no moral high ground over the Southern slaveocracy.

Until Justice Be Done begins with the American Revolution, when the rhetoric around freedom and equality forced its participants to consider what these values might mean for Black Americans. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the Northern states came to abolish slavery, but the position of free Black people living outside the South remained complicated. Few Northerners wanted Black people around them, let alone to give them the equal rights of citizens. Ohio, a state that initially was only 1 percent Black, became the first in the Northwest Territory to adopt “Black laws,” and many more soon followed. These discriminatory practices kept Black people from voting, testifying in legal cases that involved white people, or freely living their lives without the sanction of one or two white landowners vouching for them. In the North, Black people were treated as a burden. For many African Americans, therefore, freedom did not equate to belonging; as Masur notes, with the exception of “a tiny handful of visionary radicals…orthern whites were monolithically antiblack.”

During the early years of the American republic, anti-Black laws spread in the North and came to shape the country’s politics and culture. State after state, such as Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, adopted various restrictions intended to limit Black freedom and require documentation for Black settlement. These restrictions made Black people vulnerable to loss, theft, and damage. Free Black people who hoped to shape the legislative process were often denied the right to vote or participate in political life and thus found themselves dependent on white Northerners to vote for their interests and further the principle that all men deserved universal rights. Historians have neglected or glossed over these barriers and the details of how Black people and their allies fought to change them prior to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

One aspect of Masur’s book that is particularly welcome is her decision to center her narrative on the efforts of Black Americans to achieve a national consensus surrounding citizenship and civil rights. As much as we love Frederick Douglass, there were many other, unsung Black activists operating outside of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia who were as determined to speak out and act up and as vital to the struggle for emancipation. Writing about the mostly unknown Black activists in Ohio and Illinois, Masur describes how they worked tirelessly to repeal racist laws and create enclaves of Black achievement. She reveals how they not only changed laws but won over white allies, who took up these causes as their own. The repeal of the Black laws in Ohio, for example, was a victory that many hoped would be repeated in other Midwestern states, such as Illinois and Indiana.

The stories of these Black activists are central to Masur’s narrative. Men like John Mercer Langston, an attorney and one of the first African Americans elected to public office, as a town clerk in Ohio; William Howard Day, an Oberlin graduate, newspaper editor, and secretary of the National Negro Convention; and David Jenkins, a leading Black activist and editor of a weekly newspaper, all played essential roles in repealing the Black laws and fighting for Black freedom. One of the most interesting people in Masur’s book is Gilbert Horton. In 1826, he was a 26-year-old free Black man who was part of the crew on a ship called The Macedonian. Horton’s father had worked for years to purchase his son’s freedom, which happened when Horton was just 5 years old. As he traveled as a seaman, however, Horton’s freedom was always at risk when he entered the slave states. After The Macedonian docked in Norfolk, Va., he traveled to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., where he was arrested on suspicion of being a runaway and held in the local jail until an investigation could be completed.

Horton repeatedly insisted that he was a freeman, but without “evidences of freedom,” he was certain to be sold into slavery if his “owner” did not come forward. Advertisements were sent out nearly every day with his description in an attempt to find this person. Thankfully, the advertisements reached Horton’s family in New York, who immediately began to advocate for his release. The country’s first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, founded by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm in New York City, was a voice for free people of color who had been wrongly imprisoned and sold into slavery, and Horton’s case became a cause célèbre in their campaign to urge Black readers to stand up for their status as citizens.

The case brought larger issues to the fore, such as abolishing slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital. It also raised the question of whether free Black people were indeed citizens, entitled to the same “privileges and immunities” under the Constitution as white people. While one might expect the nation’s capital to be a beacon to free Black people, it was instead a place where the defenders of slavery had ramped up laws that targeted them. The district, like the various slave states, put the onus on free Black people to prove that they were free. The Black press and its allies protested such laws in Washington, which, they contended, violated the US Constitution.

Horton’s case became a national controversy. Masur is astute at taking episodes like this and weaving them into her discussion of the country’s larger political history. During the same period, for example, the Missouri debates of 1820–21 that eventually led to a ban on “free negroes and mulattos” entering the state called into question the notion of citizenship as a nationally recognized status, and Horton’s story allows Masur to show the people behind these arguments as well as their constant struggle to achieve citizenship—a struggle that was rife with stalemates, denials, and delays.

In Until Justice Be Done, Masur illustrates how citizenship and civil rights were the key to Black mobility. Who gets to move and who must stay, who has access to land or titles and who is refused, are all intricately tied to race. Aspects of this book recall Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship Before the Civil War, in which the author contends that long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and Homer Plessy brought his case before the Supreme Court, African Americans understood the connection between citizenship and mobility, which was and remains an inalienable right. Free African Americans in the North spoke out against their unjust treatment by refusing to be banished from public spaces, trains, steamships, and virtually any other mode of transportation that would have required their segregation and subordination. Freedom from discriminatory practices while traveling became a part of the civil rights movement. In other words, as both Stordeur Pryor and Masur argue, among a long list of challenges that Black Americans faced in the 19th century and well into contemporary times has been the ability to travel unobstructed and free from anxiety.

Moreover, mobility was also tied to criminality. As Masur shows, Joseph Thompson, a veteran ship steward and free Black man, learned this hard lesson while traveling as a sailor from Bordeaux, France, to New Orleans. Upon arriving, he requested that he be paid a portion of his wages. Insulted, the ship’s mate accused him of stealing. Thompson was promptly arrested and detained until he could secure friends to aid him. Questions like “Who are you?,” “Who do you belong to?,” “Where are you going?,” and “What are you doing here?” were all intended to remind Black people that they were under constant surveillance.

Masur dedicates an entire chapter to the experiences of Black sailors in Southern ports. In South Carolina, for example, the law required that all free Black people who arrived in the state by water be detained and confined in a jail until their vessel was ready to depart. Free Black sailors had to be savvy in their travels. Masur shows us African Americans, often assisted by white allies, employing direct and subversive tactics to invoke their citizenship and challenge a system upheld by the absurdity of race. As a result of such tactics, a bill was passed in Massachusetts to safeguard the rights of Black sailors, while new legal challenges would test the constitutionality of laws in other states and further the idea of seeking an act of Congress to create changes on the federal level.

By detailing these legal cases and state statutes, Masur’s book is also in conversation with the ideas of Chris Bonner’s Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship, which argues that until the states and the federal government found a consensus on the terms of citizenship, “black people suffered under this ambiguity.” Black people in America knew they were human beings, and they knew they were citizens of the United States—or, at the very least, were entitled to such citizenship. This history details the various efforts Black leaders had employed to transform the country’s practices and policies. Activism in the North was not just about abolishing slavery; it was also about repealing state-level Black laws that prevented African Americans from experiencing true liberation.

Though her book is deeply researched, Masur misses some opportunities to highlight the role and contributions of Black women in this struggle. She mentions Mary Jones, the wife of John Jones, a community leader in Alton, Ill., whose home was a safe haven for fugitives. Mary helped raise money to purchase runaways, but not much else is revealed about her. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a leading abolitionist and activist for civil and women’s rights, isn’t mentioned until the epilogue. Had Masur chosen to look west, she could also have included Mary Ellen Pleasant, an abolitionist and activist whose work earned her the moniker “the mother of human rights in California.” Several of Pleasant’s high-profile cases ended in major victories for civil rights, including her suit against railroad companies in San Francisco, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court. After almost two years of litigation, San Francisco outlawed segregation on the city’s public transportation. Yet despite the contributions of such women, Masur’s book is largely a story of men: The neglect of Black or other women is an unfortunate but all too typical feature of the field. Scholars often blame the lack of sources, but how sources are read also plays a major role in the way women—and Black women in particular—are silenced.

Nevertheless, Until Justice Be Done reminds us that, despite the popular conception of American history, change and progress are not inevitable in the United States. We are not marching confidently toward a more egalitarian and democratic society. Without constant activism and radical pressure from the bottom up, even the advances that have been won are not secure.

Today, Black people face many of the same legal barriers they did in the 19th century: segregated schools, limited relief for the poor, unfair trials, and voter suppression. Although the Black laws have been repealed, anti-Black sentiments have remained—in the North as well as the South. In fact, most of the recent police killings and shootings of Black people that have captured national attention have taken place in the North and particularly the Midwest: Tamir Rice in Ohio, George Floyd in Minnesota, Laquan McDonald in Illinois, Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Recently, a study found that the top 15 cities ranked as the worst for African Americans were nearly all in the North and primarily in the Midwest (Fresno, Calif., was the sole exception). In my own state of Massachusetts, a state labeled as progressive, Black people are only 7 percent of the population and yet make up 27 percent of the prison population. The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team revealed several years ago that the average net worth of white families in Boston is over $247,000, whereas for Black people that figure is just $8.

Such appalling statistics have a deep history, but so does Black activism. I think it’s fair to view the social and political mass organizing in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois as ongoing and necessary because Black laws were repealed but anti-Black sentiment has persisted. The fight for fair treatment within the criminal justice system, as well as access to certain neighborhoods and even health care, are rooted in the long, hard fights that Black activists and their white allies took on over 200 years ago.

Until Justice Be Done does not offer a recipe for obtaining equal recognition and treatment for Black people, but it does illustrate how they and their allies envisioned a path toward building a better world. By examining how free Black people living in the North had to navigate hostile terrains and discriminatory laws while simultaneously pushing for the end of slavery, it also reminds us that emancipation and equality are not the same thing. This book is not about abolitionism; much like being antislavery, being in favor of abolition wasn’t enough. Freedom requires civil rights, political rights, and economic rights. As the Black abolitionist Joshua Easton declared in 1837, “Abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is a danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned. Our warfare ought not to be against slavery alone, but against the spirit which makes color a mark of degradation.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that after South Carolina, New York had the largest enslaved population in the mid-18th century. It has now been updated to clarify that it was New York City, after Charleston, South Carolina, which had the second largest urban enslaved population.

Source: The Nation


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.