Friday, February 3, 2012

Freedom's Pull Was Stronger than Ohio's Black Laws

Sarah Ellen Curtis
Granddaughter of Thomas Vincent Curtis
Sandusky County Ohio

The state of Ohio is often recognized as the first state formed from the Northwest Territory to outlaw slavery. Despite that, it did much to discourage African Americans from settling in the state. Only a year after statehood, it began passing a series of Black Laws. The reasons were two-fold. Many Ohio settlers were from southern states that allowed slavery. They were not inclined to grant equal rights. Others feared economic competition from African Americans whom they believed would work for lower wages

Among the laws was an 1807 provision that “black and mulattoes” must prove they were not slaves. The law also forced them to find two people to pay a bond of $500 who would testify to their good behavior and that they could support themselves Such laws, indeed, did discourage some African Americans from migrating to Ohio, but freedom’s pull was strong. Many risked everything to reach Ohio.

Township trustees rarely enforced these laws. The need for the skills that African Americans brought to pioneer communities outweighed all else. Men worked as plasterers, barbers, shoemakers, liverymen, carpenters, barge hands, tanners, and farmers. Women cooked, sewed, cared for children, and ran boarding houses.

In the 1840s, Ohio’s Black Laws became a political issue. For the first time, in 1841, Sandusky Township trustees warned 18 “Blacks and Mulattos” living in the township to present bond for their good behavior and support: Some were former slaves who had bought their freedom. Others had never been enslaved.

Regardless, trustees listed these individuals: John Lewis, Abraham Fine, Lewis Fontaine, Nancy Whetsel, Sarah Fine, Hannah Beardsley, James Whetsel, Penelope Demsey, William Davis, Thomas V. Curtis, William Thompson, James Curtis, Rachael Copeland, Jemima Hall, Robert and Sarah Handy, Richard Johnson, and Samuel Thompson.

Despite fear, hardships, and constant disruptions in their lives, many, like Thomas Curtis, remained in Ohio. A skilled tanner and currier, Curtis moved more than a dozen times after coming to the state as a boy in 1810. How many, if any, of these moves were the result of the Black Laws is not known. But once he reached Sandusky County, he made it his permanent home and raised children and grandchildren here while working for James Justice and Isaac Van Doren.

Until their repeal after the Civil War, Ohio’s Black Laws were a frightening and threatening ordeal for African Americans. Ironically, today, the lists represent a positive. African Americans’ search for their roots before 1865 is challenging. With few records available, lists like those recorded by Sandusky Township trustees can provide descendants with their ancestors’ names - both men and women and certainty of the time and place of their residence in Ohio.

A version of this article appeared in Lifestyles 2000.