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  • “Only a Moral Power”African Americans, Reformers, and the Repeal of Ohio’s Black Laws
  • L. Diane Barnes (bio)

Responding to a critic of his home state of Ohio in 1851, abolitionist Rep. Joshua R. Giddings extolled the virtues of the racial equality that followed the partial repeal of the state’s Black Laws in February 1849. He noted that “a black or mulatto person now enjoys the same liberty to settle in Ohio as [the critic] Col. Schouler, and would be listened to in a court of justice there with the same respect.”1 For Giddings and some other white political abolitionists, the repeal represented a singular accomplishment, a promise of things to come. For African American reformers such as Alfred J. Anderson, Charles B. Ray, and Frederick Douglass, the Ohio repeal suggested “there is yet work for the friends of Universal Freedom in the State of Ohio.” African Americans viewed the “victory” as only a partial achievement. One activist remarked that “the colored population has been in a starving condition, for want of the benefits of education, and the enjoyments of various precious rights, and now our Legislature gives them only a small share of what they should have.”2

Historians sometimes dismiss Ohio’s Black Laws because some were rarely enforced and they seldom prohibited the movement of African Americans into [End Page 7] the state. The state counted a mere 337 African American residents at statehood, but by 1860 the number approached 37,000. At first glance the growing population seems astounding; however, on the eve of the Civil War black Ohioans made up less than 2 percent of the state’s 2.3 million residents. It is likely that some African Americans chose to avoid settling in Ohio, where their rights could fall victim to sporadic Black Law enforcement. To mid-nineteenth-century African Americans and their advocates in the reform community, especially, the very existence of the Black Laws enforced or not, represented one more bastion of racism in antebellum American society. The Black Laws offered a tangible target in the movement for racial equality and black uplift that grew along with immediate abolition after 1830. Repeal of the Ohio Black Laws became a goal of the national and state black convention movements, of regional white abolitionists, and was of national concern to African Americans. Some of their efforts on behalf of African Ohioans will be considered here in an effort to understand the complicated nature of the struggle for racial equality in antebellum America.

The very denial of basic civil rights, including the franchise, under Ohio law meant that no matter how hard they struggled, African Americans could claim “only a moral power” in the fight for repeal. It was up to white allies such as Giddings, Salmon P. Chase, and a few like-minded state delegates to push the repeal through the legislature. Chase took up the cause of repeal at a politically expedient time—he would ride his newfound Free Soil constituency all the way to the U.S. Senate. The legislative action to at least partially repeal the laws was made more urgent by a petition and pamphlet campaign from Ohio’s female antislavery activists, and editorials in the national black press. Yet even after repeal, with the exception of a handful of Ohio’s most light-skinned blacks, African American men could still not cast a vote in favor of those who supported civil rights.3 They were denied this basic right of citizenship [End Page 8] under the Ohio constitution, and the state’s Black Laws further restricted civil and political rights.4

The terms “black codes” or “black laws” generally bring to mind the post‒Civil War South, where legal restrictions governed the lives of African Americans. There, laws restricted the freedom of blacks, determined employment patterns, and aimed to keep African Americans laboring for little or no money. By the late nineteenth century Jim Crow laws codified the separation of African Americans and whites in public accommodations and denied blacks access to basic civil rights across the South. These systems evolved in the wake of slavery’s end; however, from the nation’s founding, slavery had...


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