- Jim Crow North: The Struggle for Equal Rights in Antebellum New England by Richard Archer
Jim Crow North is a wonderfully compact compendium of many of those things readers (including historians) would like to know concerning the realities of racism as practiced and sometimes reformed in antebellum New England. A generation of scholars has produced dozens of books and many scores of articles on seemingly endless facets of slavery and black lives in New England and the Old North. The numbers of such works are legion, and the subtleties of their monographic arguments so dizzying, that it has become difficult to make sense of the avalanche unless one is willing to become a specialist on the topic. Thankfully, the veteran historian Richard Archer, emeritus professor of history from Whittier College, has come to our rescue.
In a tidy expanse of fourteen chapters—each well chiseled—Archer summarizes what has been said about the weightiest issues relating to slavery and race in the northern United States. Among these topics are the demise of slavery (he calls it “New England’s Peculiar Institution”) in the six New England states; the continuing dependent status of emancipated “free African Americans”; and the efforts of liberated slaves to [End Page 388] forge a unity among themselves—sometimes complicated by the egos of white liberators like William Lloyd Garrison or black elites like Frederick Douglass. Archer also reviews struggles across New England to create schools for black students and then to abolish the habit of making them uniformly “segregated.” In the process, he rehearses the case of Prudence Crandall’s abortive integrated boarding school in Canterbury, Connecticut. During the 1830s New England experienced numerous armed encounters, attacks on both white and black abolitionists, and riots against those seeking to expand rights, opportunities, and freedom of movement among free blacks.
Archer also charts some fairly new territory of his own. In a chapter titled “Riding the Rails with Jim Crow,” he tells us that the idea of a Jim Crow car on railroads was originated in New England. According to his analysis, segregated Jim Crow cars were first introduced by Eastern Railroad out of Boston in its second year of service in 1839; other railroads adopted the practice immediately thereafter. Free blacks could not buy tickets in either “first class” seating or in “paddy cars,” which were other special cars to segregate Irish passengers (94–95). Over the next four years, repeated petitions, boycotts, and appeals to the railroads succeeded in encouraging them to eradicate such practices before laws could be enacted to outlaw Jim Crow cars. Concurrent efforts to secure the right to vote and to abolish segregated schools in the middle 1840s also led to considerable changes. By 1845, black males could vote in all New England states except Connecticut; four states (excluding Maine and Rhode Island) had adopted personal liberty laws, but segregated schools still operated in Boston and in the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Another of Archer’s most important original contributions relates of the relaxing of laws on interracial marriages. In a chapter titled “Repealing the Law,” he outlines a successful movement in Massachusetts in 1843 to repeal a law forbidding mixed marriages that had been on the books since 1705 and had been reaffirmed in 1786. This chronicle precedes a detailed analysis of 410 mixed marriages Archer has documented in 209 different cities, towns, and villages throughout New England from the antebellum period. The fewest mixed marriages were again in Connecticut and Rhode Island, causing him to declare that in every measure these two “were the most racist states in the region” (152).
Archer concludes his thorough survey with a depiction of regional [End Page 389] resistance to the enforcement of national fugitive-slave laws, the persistence of a line of poverty surrounding free blacks, and a continuing problem of defining who was black and who was white. Among his examples is a Massachusetts court case in 1853 that denied the right of one Edward Pindell in...