Decades Before the Civil War, Black Activists Organized for Racial Equality

Though they were just a small percentage of the state’s population, African Americans petitioned the state of Ohio to repeal racist laws

Free State Slave State Illustration
An illustration from an abolitionist paper shows the divide in border states like Ohio, where a small African American minority petitioned for change. Newberry Library

In summer 1836, white residents of Cincinnati rioted, not for the first time, against their black neighbors. On this occasion, the Ohioans rallied first against the city’s newly established abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, destroying editor James Birney’s printing press and throwing the pieces into the Ohio River. From there they rampaged through black neighborhoods, attacking businesses and looting private homes.

Ohio was a free state, but African Americans living there were subject not only to periodic white lawlessness but also to explicitly racist laws. The so-called “black laws,” which the state legislature began passing in 1804, required black residents to register with county officials (which included showing proof that they were legally free, getting landowners to post bonds on their behalf, and paying a fee), forbade African Americans from testifying in court cases involving whites, and reserved public education for white children only. Separately, the state constitution declared that only white men were entitled to vote.

Despite such strictures, Ohio and other destinations north of the Ohio River looked promising to free and enslaved black people hoping to leave the states where slavery was legal. According to U.S. Census figures, the black population of Ohio grew steadily in the first half of the 19th century, climbing from 9,568 to 17,342 between 1830 and 1840, for example. While this population only amounted to one percent of the state’s total population, the activism of black Ohioans, both in its success and failures, offer a window into this country’s first civil rights movement.

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On arriving in southern towns and hamlets, black Ohioans immediately began building institutions and working to educate their children. The state’s first independent Black church was founded in Cincinnati in 1815; by 1833, the state was home to more than 20 AME churches with a total membership of around 700 people. In 1834, African Americans in Chillicothe formed the Chillicothe Colored Anti-Slavery Society and announced it in a local newspaper. Black Ohioans were active in Freemasonry and organized myriad self-help societies. Wherever they could, Black men and women helped fugitives from slavery make their way to safety, sometimes risking their own lives in the process.

Still, direct protest against racist state laws was risky. As a new phase of anti-slavery organizing began in the 1830s, white abolitionist lecturers often faced violent mobs seeking to silence them and run them out of town. For black Ohioans, the danger was even greater. Vulnerable to being fired from work, mobbed and driven off their own properties, African Americans’ precarity was heightened by the fact that the law prohibited them from testifying in court cases involving whites.

Those circumstances make it all the more remarkable that in 1837, more than three decades after statehood, African Americans mobilized to petition the general assembly to repeal the black laws and support schools for their children. The movement began in Cleveland.

Located on the banks of Lake Erie, the city had begun to grow in earnest when the Ohio and Erie Canal, completed in 1832, connected the Great Lakes to the state’s interior. Cleveland was newer and smaller than Cincinnati, but it was also a safer place for African Americans to begin organizing a statewide movement. One of the leading figures in Cleveland’s tiny Black community was John Malvin, a Virginia native who had migrated to Ohio in 1827. Starting around 1832, he began the work of establishing private schools for the city’s black children. Malvin was an ordained Baptist minister who sometimes preached in the city’s white-led First Baptist Church, where he waged a struggle for racially equal seating.

In January 1837, Malvin and other Cleveland black activists met to consider “the expediency of petitioning” the general assembly for repeal of the black laws. Petitioning government for redress had long been considered a right available to all people, not just to “citizens” or those who were white or male. The Cleveland group’s efforts were part of a national trend in which northern black activists and their white allies turned to petitioning to demand changes that existing majorities in state legislatures, and in Congress, would likely never deliver if left to their own devices. Two years earlier, black activists from across the nation had met in Philadelphia and had recommended, among other things, that free people of color petition Congress and their state legislatures “to be admitted to the rights and privileges of American citizens.”

Malvin urged the group in Cleveland to organize “irrespective of any of the great movements of the day,” suggesting that he and his colleagues saw their efforts as separate from those of white abolitionists. Having decided to move ahead with the petition, the group arrived at a longer-term strategy. They issued a call for a statewide meeting in Columbus that summer, and they decided to hire an agent to travel the state, soliciting signatures for the petition and gathering facts about African American life in Ohio. They appointed as their agent one of their number, Molliston Madison Clark, who had attended college in Pennsylvania and was then teaching in Cleveland and studying theology at Oberlin.

Clark’s tour through Ohio evidently helped generate petitions to the legislative session already underway in Columbus, and the results were modestly encouraging. The Ohio Senate formally received a petition from black residents of Hamilton County (home of Cincinnati) but tabled it, taking no further action. In the Ohio House, legislators received a repeal petition from black residents of Columbus and referred it to the judiciary committee, alongside numerous similar petitions from white residents.

The committee returned a report defending the black laws in terms that would have been familiar to anyone following the issue at the time. It argued that the free black population itself was a problem, that the black laws were not particularly harsh, and that abolitionists were a threat to public order. In a display that suggests that the committee didn’t even regard African American petitioners as legitimate, the report excluded black signatories from its tally of the number of petitions it had received. Still, some observers viewed these developments as a victory for those seeking repeal of the black laws. The Cleveland Journal commented that the petitions had been “received more favorably than was anticipated,” and the editors of The Colored American in New York reprinted the Journal’s story and praised black Ohioans for their “moral and intellectual strength.”

That summer, black Ohioans met in what is currently believed to be their first statewide convention, part of a broader movement now known as the Colored Conventions Movement and documented by the Colored Conventions Project. As communities of free black people developed, particularly in the free states and the upper south, local leaders—often teachers, writers, ministers or skilled craftsmen—sought to connect and work with people who lived further away. Drawing on networks of friendship and tracing routes of migration, African Americans planned and held meetings where they discussed matters ranging from community well-being to religious faith to party politics.

At the 1837 Ohio convention, fighting the black laws was an important agenda item. Delegates created a constitution for a “school fund institution of the colored people” designed to receive funds from private donors and, they hoped, from the state government. They also resolved to continue petitioning for repeal of the state’s black laws. To facilitate action, the convention published two forms that could be cut out of the newspaper and pasted onto larger pages that black Ohioans could sign.

The twin petition forms asked for funding for black schools and to repeal the state’s black laws—more specifically the discriminatory law that “prevent[s] us from claiming our lawful rights when any wrong is practiced upon us,” and the racist residency law drew “a distinction” between black and white persons that was “not found in justice and equality.”

To reinforce their claims to financial solvency and independence—to insist that black Ohioans as a group they did not threaten the welfare of the state and its white population—the petition informed the legislature that they collectively owned property worth $500,000 and paid state and local taxes amounting to $2,500. The petition concluded with the hope that the legislature would see fit to recognize the taxpayer status of black Ohioans by appropriating public funds for their use. As “men[,] christians and republicans,” the petitioners promised to continue exercising their “inalienable right to freely expressing our opinions . . . till justice be done.”

Black Ohioans likely knew, when they pledged to continue raising their voices, that they could not take for granted that their petitions would even be received, much less acted upon. In the U.S. Congress, slaveholders and their allies were challenging the longstanding idea that petitioning was open to all people, regardless of status.

Faced with an onslaught of abolitionist petitions, southerners in Congress demanded that slavery-related petitions be rejected without printing them or referring them to committee, which were the conventional ways that legislative bodies dealt with petitions. Anti-abolitionist legislators rejected petitions from enslaved people and from women with the argument that petitioning was only for voters or those who were said to have a direct political stake in the community. The First Amendment to the US Constitution promised the “right of the people” to petition the government, but Congress disregarded it.

Legislators in the Pennsylvania statehouse in summer 1837 also debated whether African Americans residing in the state were entitled to have their petitions received. The claim that race or sex could preclude a person from petitioning contradicted decades of practice; it was another way of trying to silence African Americans and women of all kinds who wanted a voice in public life, but for the most part did not have the right to vote.

As a new Ohio legislative session began in December 1837, white abolitionists and black activists felt hopeful. A correspondent in Columbus informed The Philanthropist that the movement to repeal the black laws appealed not just to abolitionists but to “all lovers of justice” in the general assembly. The general assembly was inundated with abolitionist petitions that touched on all manner of concerns. In addition to calling on the legislature to repeal the black laws, petitioners also asked for protection against violent mobs, the end of race-based disenfranchisement, and new protections for alleged fugitive slaves. In the state senate, Leicester King, who was president of the white-led Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, introduced many such petitions, including one “from sundry colored inhabitants,” calling for repeal of “all laws which impose disabilities upon them on account of their color.”

Having served as chair of the special committee in charge of reviewing petitions related to the repeal of the black laws, King delivered the committee’s findings in a report on March 3, 1838. A remarkable document that resonates with today's debates about race, rights and reparations, the report lambasted those who claimed that because Ohio had never legalized slavery, its white residents were exempt “from all moral obligation to the colored race.” Against those who insisted that the state’s founders had envisioned Ohio as a white republic, King argued that racially discriminatory laws violated both the spirit and the letter of the state constitution. He pointed out that Ohio lagged behind the many other states where African Americans already enjoyed all the “rights and privileges of citizens.”

But it was the rights of persons, rather than citizenship, that King emphasized when he called for repeal of the black laws. He described the injustice of the existing legal order, pointing out that Ohio’s African Americans were “deprived of the protection of law, and denied the means of obtaining justice in our courts, or a redress for ‘injuries done in their lands, goods, and persons,’ contrary to the provisions of the constitution, declaring they should be secured to ‘every person.’” He insisted that laws barring black children from public schools violated the state constitution and argued that the state must pass a law guaranteeing jury trials for persons arrested as fugitive slaves.

The report offered several concrete proposals, including repeal of the racist testimony law, affirmation of the state constitution’s promises of universal individual rights, and a pledge that, “in the administration of justice, and in the protection of these natural and constitutional rights, the same rules and principles of law should be extended to all persons, irrespective of color, rank or condition.”

King’s report was unlike any other that Ohio’s general assembly had produced, a grand departure from the usual warnings about disruptive black migrants. Yet the session was ending, and there was no time—and probably little inclination among legislators—to press the Senate to act. In the House, a committee again responded to repeal petitions with a report insisting that the black laws must remain, but a fulsome minority report condemned the laws and called for their repeal. The legislature ordered publication of a thousand copies of King’s report, making it widely available to the public.

Ohio abolitionists were thrilled. Gathering in May, the white-led Ohio Anti-Slavery Society praised King, state senator Benjamin Wade, who had advocated for the rights of black petitioners, and U.S. senator Thomas Morris for “the fearless manner in which they have vindicated the rights of all men, and for the eloquence and fixed determination with which they have asserted and maintained the rights of petition.”

Special praise was reserved for King’s report, which had “excited profound interest in the Assembly.” “The tide of injustice, we rejoice to believe, is at length arrested,” the society crowed. “The legislature begins to feel the pressure of a public opinion, to which it has not been accustomed; hereafter, whatsoever changes may be made in our policy towards the colored people will, no doubt, be dictated and regulated by a regard to the sacred doctrine of equal rights, and the fundamental principles of civil liberty.”

Spring of 1838 was a thrilling moment for the black and white Ohioans who sought repeal of the state’s racist laws, but the fight was a long one. Eleven years later, in winter 1849, the state legislature finally repealed most of the black laws—the result of years of pressure and lobbying, as well as instability in the two-party system that had defined state and national politics since the 1830s. Even then, however, the state constitution’s mandate that only white men could vote remained; it would not be nullified until the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1870.

Ohio politics was a proving ground for men who went on to become leaders on the national stage. Several politicians who came of age during the struggle against the Ohio black laws became Republican leaders in Congress and in presidential administrations of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. They brought into that period of crisis their commitment to racial equality before the law. Among them were Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of treasury and later chief justice of the United States, and John Bingham, leading author of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which declared that no state could deny to any citizen the “privileges or immunities” of citizenship, or deny any person “due process of law” or “equal protection of the laws.”

John Malvin, for his part, remained a leader in Cleveland’s black community, becoming chair of the Cleveland Colored Republican Club in 1870. In his autobiography, published in 1879 when he was 84 years old, Malvin declared that racial discrimination was a malignant human invitation that violated the laws of God and nature. Such distinctions, he wrote hopefully, “cannot be lasting, and must sooner or later succumb to the dictates of reason and humanity.”

Excerpted from UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction. Copyright (c) 2021 by Kate Masur. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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