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  • Race, Slavery and Freedom in the Ohio River Valley during the Civil War Era
  • Jonathan W. White, guest editor

The Ohio River valley is one of the most important symbols in the history of race in nineteenth-century America. For decades southern slaves set their sights on its shores, hoping to cross onto the free soil on the other side. Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write the most important novel of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after reading about the harrowing escape of a slave woman and her child who had scrambled across large chunks of floating ice to gain their freedom on the north shore. Dred Scott’s landmark case began in St. Louis, just north of where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. And the Ohio River helped shape a young Abraham Lincoln’s views of race and slavery. One night while traveling down the Ohio in a steamboat in 1841, Lincoln observed a dozen slaves “shackled together with irons” being transported from Kentucky to the Deep South to be sold. The injustice of that scene “was a continual torment to me” that still had “the power of making me miserable,” he wrote fourteen years later, “and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border.”

The banks of the Ohio River have proved a fertile ground for the scholarly study of race. Most recently, Matthew Salafia’s Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (2013) examines the political, social, and economic interactions between white and black people north and south of the river. Rather than seeing the Ohio as a stark dividing line between slave and free territory, Salafia argues that it “was an economic conduit tying the region together.” White people in this border region accommodated one another, and the areas north and south of the river had much in common when it came to the treatment of African Americans. Salafia concludes, “This was not a region without conflict, but residents never gave up on the idea of living half slave and half free.”

Much of the recent scholarship has focused on the effects of black migration northward during and after the Civil War. By the 1850s, most midwestern states had effectively banned black immigration, creating societies essentially for white citizens only. But studies by Darrel E. Bigham, Nicole Etcheson, and Leslie A. Schwalm have found that an increasing number of African Americans moved up the Mississippi and across the Ohio during the mid-to-late 1860s. Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation threatened to overturn racial hierarchies not only in the South, but also north of the Ohio River. White civilians felt threatened by the influx of black refugees and migrants, believing that federal authorities in [End Page 3] Washington cared more about the needs of southern slaves than about those of white northerners. As one Indiana newspaper crowed in 1863, “the crest of the black wave of freed negroes is surging across the Ohio…placing the negro side by side and in competition with white labor, forcing the State to assume the support of a horde of black paupers, idlers and thieves, and…paving the way for… the amalgamation of the two races.” The Ohio River—once a River Jordan for the enslaved—was now a gateway to territory that had been previously closed to free blacks.

The essays in this special issue of Ohio Valley History bring new complexity to our understanding of race in the Ohio Valley during the Civil War era. Each, in its own way, reveals how black men and women used different mechanisms to claim some of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of citizenship. Some held public celebrations; others resorted to judicial proceedings; some ran away from their masters and sought to deceive those who captured them; others used the pension system to claim the support of the federal government.

In an insightful social history of Jefferson County, Indiana, Mark A. Furnish recreates life in a place where African Americans enjoyed an unusual amount of autonomy and economic opportunity in the antebellum period. Ex-slaves and free blacks overcame great obstacles to become community leaders in Jefferson County—first...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2377-0600
Print ISSN
1544-4058
Pages
pp. 3-5
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-06
Open Access
No
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