‘The Bone and Sinew of the Land’: An Interview with Historian Anna-Lisa Cox

Anna-Lisa Cox at the Center for Black Literature and Culture in Indianapolis (courtesy of the author).

In today’s post, blogger Adam McNeil interviews Anna-Lisa Cox about her new book, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality (Public Affairs, 2018). Dr. Cox is an award winning historian on the history of racism and race relations in nineteenth-century America. She is a non-resident Fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. She was a recent Research Associate at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture where her original research underpinned two historical exhibits. Dr. Cox has been invited to speak at a variety of institutions and organizations across the United States, from universities to middle schools. She has been invited to teach specially created courses at a number of colleges and institutions including recent seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She is also an historical consultant for museums, historical societies, and documentary film makers. She has been the recipient of numerous awards for her research, including a Gilder Lehrman Foundation Fellowship and grants from the Spencer Foundation. Her published works include numerous essays and editorials as well as the books A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith and The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality

Adam McNeil: Your new book The Bone and Sinew of the Land tells the largely unknown story of the nation’s first “Great migration.” Can you tell us more about how you came to write about this important topic? What were the factors and/or motivations that led to your decision to write this book?

Lisa Cox: The simple answer is that I did not know when I started this project that I would be writing a book about the nation’s first Great Migration. Indeed, when I wrote my first book, A Stronger Kinship, I believed that there were few successful pioneering and propertied African American farmers in the antebellum Northwest Territory states. I was aware of the racism since it was clearly evident in the laws and politics of the region throughout most of the nineteenth century. But I, like most historians, assumed that these laws were created to keep an imagined group from coming to this frontier, rather than in response to a very real and large population of successful and propertied African Americans who had been settling there since the earliest Territorial days. I certainly never thought that I would discover over 330 African American farming settlements scattered across the Northwest Territory states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, many of them founded in the earliest years of the United States. And that these settlements would be home to propertied farmers, many of whom were wealthy, and were using that wealth to fight for equality and liberty long before the Civil War.

There were numerous motivations for doing this research. Probably the most important one was the descendants of these African American pioneers, many of whom have been working for years to preserve and make known their histories. As I wrote my first book, I got to know the descendants of some of these pioneering families, and they shared with me the powerful oral narratives of their journey from the South to the Northwest Territory states before the Civil War. These shared histories, combined with the work of Stephen Vincent (Southern Seed, Northern Soil) and Emma Lou Thornbrough (The Negro in Indiana), made me suspect that there was more African American rural settlements in the antebellum Midwest than had previously been acknowledged. What was also hidden was the potent backlash against that rising before the Civil War, as people who thought of themselves as white worked to weave prejudice into the laws and constitutions of a region that was supposed to grant equal citizenship rights. Certainly, I thought it was essential to make known the ways in which people who thought of themselves as white were actively working to weave prejudice into the laws and constitutions of a region that was supposed to grant equal citizenship rights. There is so much that is taken for granted today about segregation in America, particularly in the North. But as I point out in my book, none of this was fated, and all of these reversals were fought.

McNeil: Can you tell us more about the “Great Migration” of the nineteenth century? How large was this migration in scope, and from where did many of the African Americans in The Bone and Sinew of the Land originate if not from the Northwest Territory?

Cox: First, I should stress that the map in this book that locates the over 300 antebellum African American farming settlements is very conservative. It is far from complete, and I continue to find more. Also, there were many propertied African Americans in this region who would not or could not be counted on a federal document at this time. Finally, I only counted settlements that were home to propertied African American farmers, so I did not count the settlements that grew up around other frontier and rural African American entrepreneurs such as general store owners, mill owners, blacksmiths, and many others.

This was an immensely diverse population. Some were like Jean Baptiste DuSable, Afro-French Traders who had been living for generation in the Great Lakes region long before there was a United States. But once the Northwest Territory came into American hands and was opened for settlement, African Americans from more settled regions of the Southern and Northern United States were some of the earliest on the frontier. This is understandable, because the Northwest Territory was the largest piece of land ever to be set aside as free from slavery when the Ordinance was written in 1787, and it offered equal voting rights for men, whether white or Black.

There were long-free families like the Morrises, who came from South Carolina to settle the Wabash River Valley in the 1790s, and there were freedom entrepreneurs like Cornelius Elliott who were brought illegally enslaved into the territory in the 1810s and worked while enslaved to earn money to purchase their freedom.

As I studied these truly heroic pioneers who came to this frontier, I could not help but think of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. True, the Turner thesis is a contentious and justly criticized concept. But so many of these African American pioneers to the Northwest Territory were bringing only their own body and labor to the frontier. They were pioneers who had no other family members or friends to turn to for support, for those family members and friends were enslaved. With these African American pioneers in mind, one cannot help but wonder if Turner’s concept of the ideal rugged individual on the frontier is not wholly wrong, it is just Black.

McNeil: Black strivings for success have always been met by white hostility, violence, and backlash. As Black farmers and laborers struggled for equality, what kinds of challenges did African Americans on the frontier face?

Cox: While racism arose in the Midwest, the reason these pioneers came to this frontier is that it initially had more opportunities for African Americans and their white allies to push forward very real solutions to racism. Remember, this region initially had equal voting rights. And there were many ways in which advocates for equality worked closely together. They ran Underground Railroad routes together, founded churches together, rolled back racist “Black Code” laws in Ohio in the 1840s, helped to overturn slavery and indentured servitude in this region, married each other, and ran schools together. And the first African American to be elected to political office in the United States was John Langston by a white electorate in a rural township in Ohio, while he was living on his successful farm.

The backlash in this region had less to do with simple statistics and more to do with the notable success of these pioneers. Indeed, historians must be very wary of how they apply statistical analysis to the African Americans in this region. For example, I have come across just one large African American family in a rural Illinois County by 1840. Using simple statistical analysis, the percentages of African Americans in that county would seem insignificant.  However, that family owned close to 1,000 acres of land, so their economic, social, and symbolic significance far outweighed their numbers, especially when we understand what it took to be a successful market farmer on the Northwest Territorial frontier at that time. In order to plow one acre of land with a single-blade plow, a farmer has to walk nine miles. And it takes a skilled and powerful laborer an entire day to harvest just a quarter acre of grain. This means that an African American farming family who had hundreds of acres under grain cultivation before the widespread use of reapers were essentially landed gentry hiring most of the white people in their region to harvest their grain for them.

The best analogy for these wealthy market farmers is the scene in the movie Hidden Figures, when Katherine Goble is invited into a top secret meeting with white male military and NASA officials. Statistically, the number of African Americans in that room is very small, but as Katherine Goble does her brilliant work on the blackboard in front of all of those men, her significance is much higher than any statistics would seem to reveal.

James and Sophia Clemens Farmhouse, c. 1890, Darke County, Ohio (Photo: Roane Smothers, president of the Union Literary Institute Preservation Society).

McNeil: The abolitionist movement, popularly known to have begun around the late 1820s or early 1830s, played a prominent role in The Bone and Sinew of the Land but you touched on another highly important movement as well. Can you speak to the importance of the Colored Conventions Movement’s western influence?

Cox: The Colored Convention Movement arose with particular vigor and potency in the Northwest Territory states before the Civil War, in order to combat a new generation of anti-equality and pro-slavery radicals arising in murderous force in this region. While these young racist whites often accused abolitionists and convention leaders of being radicals, these equal rights and abolitionist activists were actually (in an odd way) conservative in the ways that they were holding on to the old ideals of the 1787 Northwest Territorial Ordinance.

And many of the leaders of this movement in the Midwest were pioneering and propertied farmers. The convention movement’s leaders made frequent references to the fact that they once had rights, but those rights had since been stolen from them. As African American leaders of the 1844 Ohio Colored Convention reminded their fellow Buckeyes, “The Declaration of Independence, the American Bill of Rights, the Ordinance of 1787, as well as the political Creed of every intelligent, generous and patriotic freeman, are clearly violated, nay shamefully desecrated, by that feature of our constitution that renders the color of the skin a qualification for electors and suffrages.”

McNeil: What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

Cox: That the history of African Americans and race relations in the Old Northwest Territorial frontier is an entire field, and it needs so much more attention. As Tiya Miles pointed out in her recent interview with Black Perspectives, historians have long made assumptions about this region, assumptions that have effected the way we think today about American history, from the causes of the Civil War to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the North in the early twentieth century. At the readings I have done around the country, people keep noting that this book resonates with so many issues of today: anti-immigration laws, segregated schools, even the fact that the six worst cities in America for African Americans to achieve economically are mostly Midwest/Old Northwest Territory and all of them are northern. It is haunting how this lost history is still influencing us.

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Adam McNeil

Adam McNeil is History PhD student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick focusing on 17th and 18th Century Black Women’s History and slavery. Secondarily, he focuses on Black Appalachian histories of slavery and freedom.