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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Dec 13, 2018

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a close look at a long forgotten chapter in US history – the story of tens of thousands of African Americans who, in the 70 years before the Civil War and the end of slavery, settled on what was then the western frontier and today we know as the Midwest. They established successful farms and created thriving communities of black families. But intensifying racism in these antebellum years meant that these African Americans also faced efforts by white Americans in states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to deprive them of their citizenship, land, and opportunities to get ahead. To dig into this story, I speak with historian Anna-Lisa Cox. She’s the author of a new book, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality.

In the course of our conversation, Anna-Lisa Cox explains:

How the Northwest Territory -- what is now much of the Midwest – was established by Congress in 1787 and constituted the largest territory established in the New World that prohibited slavery.

How thousands of free African Americans migrated to this territory to establish farms and small businesses. And how many of them thrived and became prosperous – and a few quite rich.

How many enslaved African Americans worked extra hours for wages to gradually buy their freedom and the freedom of loved ones. 

How these migrants initially enjoyed full rights of citizenship, including voting rights and freedom from racist laws limiting their civil rights.

How over time, however, as larger numbers of white settlers arrived and states like Ohio and Indiana were established, they succeeded in passing racist laws that prevented black migration or made it financially very difficult.

How white violence, as exemplified by the so-called Cincinnati Race War of 1829, challenged African American freedom and their right to economic opportunity.

And how in the early 20th century, long-established communities of black farmers began to disappear due to economic hardship and the rise of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. 

Recommended reading

Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality (Public Affairs, 2018). 

More info about Anna-Lisa Cox - website

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Related ITPL podcast episodes:

068 featuring my conversation with Ed Ayers about his book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

074 where I speak with Linda Gordon about the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.

077 where I speak with Patricia Limerick about the New Western History

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Bathed in Finest Dust” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting

Podcast Editing: Wildstyle Media

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Social Media management: The Pony Express

Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight

© In The Past Lane, 2018

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