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'Until Justice Be Done' Examines Northern Free States' So-Called Black Laws

<strong></strong><em>Until Justice Be Done</em>, by Kate Masur
W.W. Norton
Until Justice Be Done, by Kate Masur

Updated August 4, 2021 at 1:30 PM ET

Everyone knows Southern states practiced slavery in the years before the Civil War. Fewer people may know what happened in Northern states known as free states. Yes, those states banned slavery — but they also passed restrictive codes known as Black laws (or Black codes) that kept the lives of free Black residents difficult and constrained.

Historian Kate Masur researched those laws in states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois for her recent book, Until Justice Be Done.

"Black laws did things like require that free African Americans register with county officials if they wanted to live in a particular county," she says. "They forbade African Americans from testifying in court cases involving white people. Eventually, they barred Black children from public education. And in addition, there were anti-Black laws, usually through state constitutions, that made the vote for white people only."

Interview Highlights

On how modern rhetoric about poverty, crime and inner cities — usually directed at Black people — echoes white justifications for discriminatory laws

Many people argued that free Black people were going to be dependent, that they didn't know how to work. Sometimes they said, well, they came from slavery, and in slavery they were forced to work, so they don't know how to work voluntarily. They're going to require public support. They're going to be expensive. They're going to bring crime into our communities. They're going to take away jobs from white people. And so for all of these reasons, these people would say, we're better off trying to avoid Black migration into our states.

On Ohio, the first state to pass a set of Black laws

The laws did not work to stop migration. So from what we can tell from census data, the Black population of those states increased at about the same rate as the white population during this period. So these states were growing in population very dramatically overall. And people said at the time that if the laws are designed to discourage migration, they're not working.

In a famous example, in the summer of 1829 in Cincinnati, there was a lot of white agitation about a growing free Black population. And people started to say, we're going to start enforcing the laws. On a certain date, everyone will be required to register. And if you can't prove that you are free and entitled to be here, you know, we're going to throw you in jail and probably deport you. And then what ends up happening is, before they even begin to enforce the law, there's a riot of white people against the Black community.

On resistance to the Black laws

We have to remember that Black men couldn't vote. Black people are small minorities of these state populations. And so it raises a question, which is, if your views are kind of marginal, if you're not a very powerful community, how do you actually make political change?

So Black residents, first of all, Black migrants, as they're able to get more and more organized in the Midwestern states, they found churches. They found communities. And they are able to start to organize, and mostly they begin by petitioning state legislatures to repeal the Black laws. We have to remember that Black men couldn't vote. Black people are small minorities of these state populations. And so it raises a question, which is, if your views are kind of marginal, if you're not a very powerful community, how do you actually make political change? And so Black communities begin to organize to try to get these laws repealed.

And there are also a lot of white people who are mainly coming out of the abolitionist tradition — although not exclusively people who identified themselves as abolitionists. And they, too, believe these laws are wrong, and they begin to organize as well. So sometimes together and sometimes separately, we see Black communities and white communities getting organized, trying to figure out how to influence state policies and ultimately to get enough people in the state legislatures that they're going to repeal these laws.

On whether the Ohio movement succeeded

Ohio was the most successful, the people of Ohio, in getting rid of the Black laws. And actually, in 1849, through very savvy political organizing and kind of pushing and pushing, the state government finally repeals most of the Black laws. And it's a tremendous victory for this movement, and it's very inspiring for people in other states, particularly, again, in Illinois and Indiana, where they're struggling against more adverse political conditions.

On what it was like researching the resistance to Black laws over the past few years

It was very interesting. I went back and forth a lot about the similarities and differences about protest and organizing during the summer of 2020, when George Floyd's murder and all kinds of other disturbing events associated with police violence were very much on the table. And we saw in particular Black-led organizing, in which white people participated in larger numbers than we had probably ever seen before, and thinking about questions about, first of all, Black leadership around questions of American democracy and the ways that African Americans have often in history been the most prominent voices in conceiving of American democracy in the broadest possible terms. And also the ways that white people come to consciousness around these issues, where they might not have ever thought very much about racial injustice before. So those kinds of parallels were also on my mind.

This story was edited for radio by Avery Keatley and Reena Advani, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer

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