In 1829, Ohio’s state legislators made an announcement that reverberated through African American communities across the nation. Responding to white discomfort over the state’s growing free Black population, they announced that Ohio’s longstanding Black Laws would be enforced, effective the following year. Largely ignored and unused since they first went on the books in 1804 and 1807, the laws’ enforcement meant that African Americans in Ohio would be forced to withdraw from military and jury service, denied the right to bear arms, and required to register themselves with the state and post a costly bond to ensure their good behavior.
Enforcement of the Black Laws was a significant blow to the civil rights of Black Ohioans and an ominous sign for Black Americans throughout the nation. Worse still, white Ohioans perpetrated a wave of violent and destructive assaults on the Black community of Cincinnati that same summer. Anti-Black mobs attacked homes and businesses, unleashing a wave of terror that continued for several days. The community’s pleas for help and protection were left unanswered by city officials.
Across the United States, free African-American communities reeled at events in Ohio. The Black Laws and the anti-Black violence that accompanied their announcement seemed to fulfill many people’s fears that African Americans would never achieve meaningful freedom and equality in the United States. It was the end of an era inflected with cautious optimism that the American public was moving in favor of general, if gradual, emancipation and recognition of Black citizenship.
In the wake of 1829, Black activists and their white allies began turning to more radical anti-slavery strategies in the United States. Simultaneously, they looked abroad. Some searched for inspiration and guidance from different emancipation processes unfolding around the Atlantic, others decided to explore what new lives might await them across international borders. The options and outcomes available to African Americans abroad became focal points for anti-slavery advocates and activists dedicated to fighting for a more promising future in the United States.
Looking outward from American shores was not a new phenomenon. In the decade prior, African Americans and white observers had already been engaged in protracted and contentious conversations about whether and how two contrasting relocation projects might affect the fight against institutionalized slavery and the lives of free Black people. The first was the white-led African colonization project, which focused on relocating freed slaves to Liberia. The second was the Black-led Haitian emigration project, which emphasized the citizenship rights and economic potential that free African Americans might enjoy in a Black republic. But beginning in 1829, the geography of Atlantic freedom was quickly expanding, bringing new locations—and new opportunities—into the field of inquiry, imagination, and immigration.
In the wake of the Ohio Black Laws, a group of free African Americans fleeing Cincinnati helped establish Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario) as a free-soil escape hatch and a powerful alternative to slavery and civic exclusion in the United States. Meanwhile, a decade of anti-slavery legislation culminated in the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1829, sparking a wave of emigration advocacy among anti-slavery advocates convinced that Mexico, long a destination for fugitive slaves, was a promising emigration destination for free Black people as well. In the mid-1830s, the British Caribbean also underwent a gradual, uneven emancipation process that freed hundreds of thousands of people over a four-year period and captured the full attention of American observers. Enslaved and free African Americans alike crisscrossed these international borders throughout the antebellum period, upending their lives and setting off for unfamiliar locales in the hopes of a better life. White observers, too, traveled abroad to develop their own perspectives on freedom and emancipation.
In my new book, Beacons of Liberty, I explore the complex and dynamic impact that these experiences and observations of Black freedom abroad had on the American anti-slavery movement in the United States. When I started this project, I was, in part, curious about how the expansion of freedom beyond U.S. borders affected anti-slavery and pro-slavery thought and action. I also wondered how the Underground Railroad to Canada achieved such notoriety and acclaim when it was only one of several international spaces where self-emancipated freedom seekers fled.
What I found was that international “free soil” meant a wide range of things to a wide range of people. Moreover, what it meant and to whom shifted over time in response to changing social conditions and geopolitics within and beyond the United States. Both collectively and individually, places where slavery had already been abolished offered practical models of Black freedom and concrete destinations where free and self-emancipated people could anticipate legal protection and equal standing. They provided powerful alternative possibilities to slavery and racism in the United States. Yet, over time, they also developed specific and distinct reputations among slaves, free black activists, and white anti-slavery advocates for their potential to harbor African Americans, provide meaningful socio-economic opportunities, and influence the fight against U.S. slavery.
Drawing from the rich stories and perspectives of courageous emigrants, investigative travelers, and opinionated observers, Beacons of Liberty offers new insight into the evolution of anti-slavery thought and action by exploring the incredible impact of freedom abroad at a time when slavery remained a defining institution in American life. Tracing shifting ideas about international free soil and the meaning of freedom across a fifty-year period ending with the American Civil War, it tells a captivating story about how international geopolitics helped Americans answer crucial questions about national identity, who belonged, and under what conditions.