Fugitive slaves once crossed the Ohio River into the Buckeye State to find freedom and refuge. Correct? Well, a student of local history should question the truth in this statement, and he or she might likely find the answer must be qualified. From the beginning of statehood, Ohio was a hotbed of pro and anti-sentiment concerning slavery. Southern Ohio, in particular, struggled mightily with the issue.
It is true that slavery was abolished in Ohio by the state's original constitution (1802).
The commonly told history of antebellum race relations in the midwest, especially in Ohio, shows discrimination everywhere. This view is expressed best by Leon Litwack's assertion that even up to the eve of the Civil War "the northern Negro remained largely disenfranchised, segregated, and economi-cally oppressed" and, just as importantly, "change did not seem imminent."
Paul Finkelman, respected American author and legal historian writes:
“The Convention that met to draft Ohio's first constitution was dominated by southerners and by followers of Thomas Jefferson from both the North and the South. A slight majority of the delegates- fifteen of twenty-eight-were from the South, but some emigrants from Pennsylvania were also Jeffersonians. Like their hero,these delegates believed that the rights of white men could only be secured by denying rights to blacks. Theirs was a democracy predicated on white supremacy.
“While a narrow majority of the Convention was opposed to black rights, an overwhelming majority of the delegates opposed allowing outright slavery in the new state. Some opposed slavery on moral grounds or as a matter of political principle. Others simply thought slavery was antithetical to the kind of society they wanted to create. These delegates had little sympathy for blacks but were convinced that slavery would harm the state's economic growth, even if it enriched a few elite masters.”
Thus, black people were not recognized in the state of Ohio as having any political existence or rights. They occupied the same status as Native Americans or unnaturalized immigrants. Because of this, all of the rights and privileges granted under the Ohio constitution applied to white men only.
And, at the same time, Ohio, with slave-state Kentucky across the river, took the lead in aggressively barring black immigration.
When Virginian John Randolph's 518 slaves were emancipated and a plan was hatched to settle them in southern Ohio, the population rose up in indignation. An Ohio congressman warned that if the attempt were made, "the banks of the Ohio ... would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves."
According to historian Leon F. Litwack, Ohio "provided a classic example of how anti-immigration legislation could be invoked to harass Negro residents." The state had enacted Black Laws in 1804 and 1807 that compelled blacks entering the state to post bond of $500 guaranteeing good behavior and to produce a court paper as proof that they were free.
"No extensive effort was made to enforce the bond requirement" Likwack wrote, "until 1829, when the rapid increase of the Negro population alarmed Cincinnati. The city authorities announced that the Black Laws would be enforced and ordered Negroes to comply or leave within thirty days."
In her scholarly paper, “Forgotten: Scioto County's Lost Black History,” Rebecca D. Jenkins explains the further strengthening of white-dominated government and citizenship ..
“... in 1804, Ohio’s legislature passed the Black Laws, designed to 'regulate Black and Mulatto persons,' and provide protocols in regard to their entry and settlement into the state.
(The Black Laws enacted by the Ohio Legislature affected the settlements of African Americans because of the restrictions of employment and punishment for harboring slaves. The court system further prevented African Americans to testify in the court system.)
“Among the regulations, each black person that desired to reside in the state was required to obtain and present to the local government documentation from 'some court in the United States' that ‘proved’ their freedom.
“Per the law, all Black citizens already residing within Ohio’s borders were required to register with the state, provide the name of their children, and pay a registration fee of twelve and a half cents for each member of the family.
“White citizens were not required to register or pay this fee. White citizens were barred from hiring any Black person that could not produce the court certificate or proof of registration, or else they were fined from ten to fifty dollars. Not coincidentally, the same fee was imposed on anyone caught ‘harboring, or hindering the capture of' a fugitive slave.”
(The second set of Black Laws introduced in 1807 added the “stipulation that African Americans be allowed to settle in Ohio only if they can provide $500 bonds.” The bond required the signature of two (white) bondsmen and assured both good behavior and a guarantee against the black resident “becoming a pauper, and therefore a burden to the city.”The laws remained in effect until 1849, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law.)
Some group like the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society formed in Zanesville in April 1835 by prominent abolitionists like Asa Mahan, John Rankin, Theodore Dwight Weld, and Charles Finney pledged to fight for the abolition of slavery and the establishment of laws that would protect African Americans after they were free.
Still, the goals of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society were opposed by many Ohioans. Some of them believed that African Americans would flee the South, come to the North and take jobs away from other Ohioans.
Pro-slavery advocates often attacked the abolitionists. On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged the city government to prohibit James Birney from publishing The Philanthropist. Birney was undaunted. To prevent Birney from printing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper's printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and destroyed the printing press again. Abolitionist John Rankin also was the victim of mob violence. Pro-slavery advocates once tried to embarrass him by shaving his horse's tail and mane.
Ohio prohibited slavery, but only in the sense that no one could buy or sell slaves within the state. Not until 1841 did Ohio enact a law so that any slave brought into the state automatically became free. Before then, Southern slave owners regularly visited Ohio and especially Cincinnati accompanied by slaves. Ohio laws allowed slave owners to bring their slaves into the state for unspecified periods of time before those slaves were considered free. Slaves who gained freedom, as Emil Pocock points out in “Slavery and Freedom In the Early Republic,” discovered that there was “freedom” and there was “freedom”:
“White settlers held black adults and children, some of whom were former slaves, to involuntary labor north of the Ohio River as indentured servants. Other slaves brought across the river may have been coerced to remain under the control of their owners under threat of being sent back to a slave state. Some slaves may have voluntarily acquiesced in this arrangement by concluding that a life of labor in a free state was preferable to life as a slave south of the river, even though there may have been little actual difference in their condition. Nominally, free blacks may have found some benefit in living under the protection of a white family, even if this arrangement diminished their actual freedom.”
Newspapers in Cincinnati were filled with advertisements offering rewards for fugitive slaves. The most famous of these ads, which appeared in Cincinnati’s Western Spy newspaper for 19 June 1802, was placed by future U.S. President Andrew Jackson. At that time, Jackson was a colonel in the Tennessee militia and had not yet acquired his great estate known as Hermitage, but he owned many slaves on his plantation near the Cumberland River. He offered $50 for the return of a slave named George.
Still, They Came To Southern Ohio
Despite these obstacles, both Ohio generally, and the Scioto River Valley specifically, sustained a sizable Black community even in the earliest years of the nineteenth century. Free blacks found that it was difficult to get fair treatment, and they often formed their own communities away from whites for protection.
The storied narrative of Black Friday is believed to be the origin of the local black community of Huston Hollow. It is a historical account of forced expulsion of much of Portsmouth's black population – a number of whom found refuge in Huston Hollow (now known as Houston Hollow) near Lucasville, Ohio. Allow me to share this event.
On Friday, January 21st, 1831, the following notice appeared in the city's paper, the Portsmouth Courier:
“The citizens of Portsmouth are adopting measures to free the town of its colored population. We saw a paper, yesterday, with between one and two hundred names, including most of the house-holders, in which they pledged themselves not to employ any of them who have not complied with the law. The authorities have requested us to give notice that they will hereafter enforce the law indiscriminately."
According to historical accounts, eighty African American residents of the city were expelled under the threat of enforcement of the Ohio "Black Laws." Accounts say “one hundred or two hundred householders in Portsmouth” signed a paper demanding the move. These blacks were runaway slaves and their locally born sons and daughters, who for whatever reason, decided to stay in Portsmouth rather than seek freedom in Canada. Lacking proper papers, they were forcibly deported from town.
Nelson Evans, the author of A History of Scioto County, Ohio (1902) wrote ...
"A Black Friday. On January 21, 1830, all the colored people in Portsmouth were forcibly deported from the town. They were not only warned out, but they were driven out. They were forced to leave their homes and belongings. Between one hundred and two hundred householders had signed a paper to the effect that they would not employ any black person who had not complied with the law. The town authorities had been worked up to the point of agreeing to enforce the savage and brutal 'Black Laws' of Ohio.”
Historian Andrew Feight, Ph.D., confirms Black Friday was actually the second recorded expulsion of African-Americans from the area. He wrote ...
The Huston Hollow community became a critical link in the Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early-to-mid 19th century. The expelled blacks proved to be invaluable to others seeking freedom.
The Underground Railroad was extremely active in Scioto County. Entering Ohio from Kentucky at Portsmouth, slaves were brought across the Ohio River by a “River Boat Captain,” who took them to an “African American Farmer.” The farmer would often take fugitives to the Pee Pee Settlement in Pike County (Eden Baptist Church). Pike County conductors moved them to Ross County usually through Bourneville to Frankfort and then west of Circleville. Finally, the fugitives would be taken north to Franklin County.
Who might the “African American Farmer” be? In the 1830s, Joseph Love and Dan Lucas, both African Americans, lived in Huston Hollow and were said to have been the most active operators, helping (with the aid of their families) move runaway slaves up the Scioto Valley to the next station in Pike County. It is safe to assume Love and Lucas were those “farmers” of the historical accounts.
Huston Hollow remained small in size during its existence, averaging less than one hundred residents. By the mid 1900s, Huston Hollow had lost its identity as a separate community. With whites increasingly showing African Americans tolerance, many African Americans began to find acceptance in traditionally white communities (although longtime residents of Scioto County know the slow progress in regard to racial equality here).
(I beg any readers to supply this writer with further information about Joseph Love and Dan Lucas. No account online has been discovered. The Lucasville Area Historical Society also confirms that black students attended school nearby at 5 Mile Church, or even Davis School. The society also has photos of residents Martha, Gull, and Sadie Hill as well as Lucy, Thelma, and Lloyd Hanson. We hope you have much more to add. Please add information and sources in the “Comments” section here.)
Without a doubt, fugitive slaves and black settlers in Ohio were courageous, incredible individuals. Surviving the inhuman conditions of Southern slavery and then bravely defying death in their desperate escapes, they found the promised land of Ohio brimming with inequality and injustice. It is unfathomable that bigotry and racism were so prevalent in a free state. Theirs was truly a life of “democracy predicated on white supremacy.”
Over and above enduring constant racial injustice, many of these same people risked their lives again once on Ohio soil. Living a life in fear of deportation, they boldly helped others like themselves achieve a better life. Think of their tremendous contribution to our country, state, and community.
I cannot imagine the struggles they endured. And, who can deny the generations that lived with cruel oppression and bitter hatred? And, we all know the promise of equality has not yet been kept. We are bound to make this a reality. We can help achieve this by sharing history like this – folk history of local heroes, real stories that impact lives.
“A common thread running throughout the long story of abolition is the courageous individual standing up for freedom and justice. These heroes aren't all famous, wealthy or in high office. You don't even find them in every history book. They're everyday people, like you and me, from every corner of the globe who choose to demand freedom.”
-- The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Paul Fin. Case Western Reserve Law Review Volume 55. Issue 22004. “The Strange Career of Race Discrimination in Antebellum Ohio.” Paul Fin
"Black Friday": Enforcing Ohio's "Black Laws" in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Andrew Feight, Ph.D. “The Origins of the African-American Community of Huston Hollow.”
Ohio Supreme Court, “Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Ohio, Volume 14,” 1873, 201.
Emil Pocock. “Slavery and Freedom In The Early Republic” [Ohio Valley History, Spring 2006], Appendix to the "Congressional Globe," 30 Cong. 1 Sess., p.727.
Leon F. Litwack. North of Slavery. Chicago, 1961.
Henry Howe. Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes. Vol. II. Cincinnati, OH: C.J. Krehbiel & Co., Printers and Binders, 1902.
Greg Hand. “Ohio Was Not Home-Free For Runaway Slaves.” Cincinnati Magazine. February 18, 2016.
Rebecca D. Jenkins. "Forgotten: Scioto County’s Lost Black History" (Bowling Green State University, MA Thesis, 2015).
Frank Quillin. “The Color Line in Ohio, a History of Race Prejudice in a Typical Northern State.” 1913.
“Early History of Wayne Township. Number Five.” Portsmouth Times. (July 5, 1879).
“J. J. Minor account of abolitionist activities, Portsmouth, Ohio, Sept. 1894.” Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio History Connection.
Nelson W. Evans. "A Black Friday" in A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902), p. 613.
Nikki Marie Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati's Black Community, 1802-1868 (Ohio University Press, 2005).
Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2005).
Carter G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 − A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915).
Carter G. Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration (Washington, D.C., 1918).
Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History (Washington, D.C., 1922).