Conflicts over race and slavery in the Lower Midwest have often set the stage for critical national conversations.


While reading Jon Lauck’s essay, “Regionalist Stirrings in the Midwest,” I was struck by the author’s argument that the past century’s literary critics largely ignored Midwestern writers. What, I wondered, about the timeless and award-winning work of Toni Morrison? Morrison, like other African American literary luminaries (Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name just a few) was born in the Midwest, and like them she has devoted a significant portion of her career to examining African American lives in the cities, small towns, hills, valleys and rivers of the region. We miss out on much that is important about the Midwest when we fail to consider the complex narratives of African Americans here.

Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye is set in her birthplace, Lorain, Ohio. She returned to Ohio in Sula (1973) and Beloved (1987) while also contemplating African American life, history, and memory in Michigan in Song of Soloman (1977) and Oklahoma in Paradise (1997). Reading Beloved is necessary not only for its own sake, but especially when considering the 19th Century history of the Midwest.

Set on the banks of the Ohio River just outside Cincinnati, Beloved’s inspiration was the tragic history of Margaret Garner. In 1856, Garner and her family escaped from slavery in Kentucky by crossing over the frozen Ohio River. They were discovered and, while cornered, Margaret Garner determined to kill her children and herself rather than allow any of them to be reenslaved. She succeeded in killing one child before being captured and imprisoned. Her trial determined neither guilt nor innocence in the death of her daughter, but rather that her Kentucky owner had the right to pursue and recoup his property (the Garner family) even after they had escaped slave territory (Kentucky) and had found refuge in free territory (Ohio). As a result, she and her surviving family members were sold further south.

Morrison uses Beloved to create voices for enslaved women like Margaret Garner who were rendered voiceless by laws that denied them the right to read and write, to testify in court, to benefit from their own labor, to legally wed, to control access to their own bodies and to claim their children as their own.

Through the novel, Morrison also helps her audience better appreciate that the histories of slavery and freedom in the United States are neither confined to the American South nor constricted by simplistic Northern-Southern geographical and cultural divisions. Instead, Morrison brings to life the reality that some of the most pressing issues surrounding slavery and freedom in the United States played out in the Middle West.

Slavery and Freedom in the Lower Midwest

For much of the early to mid-1800s, the Lower Midwest was a battleground upon which the future of slavery across the nation was fought. The conflict over slavery was hastened by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, through which the United States acquired territory that eventually became Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. The first clash, taking place between 1818 and 1820, was over Missouri’s admission to statehood as a slave state. It resulted in the Missouri Compromise. The Comprise allowed slavery in Missouri but drew a corner around the area that would one day become Kansas and Nebraska. That corner would be closed to slavery. Like Missouri, however, Arkansas and Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) would also be open to slavery. As a result, between 1810 and 1860, the slave populations in Missouri and Arkansas ballooned from 3,011 to 114,931 and 188 to 111,115, respectively. Oklahoma did not become a state until the 20th Century, but in 1860 more than 8,000 blacks were held in slavery in Indian Territory.

Thirty years later, America’s crisis over slavery was again exposed in the Lower Midwest. First, free blacks, including those like Margaret Garner who had escaped slavery and settled in free territory, were put in danger through the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The law allowed anyone to be deputized to aid in capturing any black accused of being a slave. It denied the accused the right to testify in their own defense and provided monetary incentives for courts to determine that blacks were slaves rather than free.

Then in 1854, Congress nullified the Missouri Compromise by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The legislation allowed for citizens of each future state to determine their slave status through the principle of “popular sovereignty,” meaning through the electoral process. As a result of the law, pro- and anti-slavery partisans flooded into Kansas and engaged in bloody warfare in order to gain control of the territory in advance of statehood. After years of violence and political battles, Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861. Nebraska became a state in 1867, two years after the Civil War settled the question of slavery in the United States.

While important, statistics, legislation, and political battles over slavery only tell a portion of the story. As Toni Morrison reminds us, the human element of slavery can never be overlooked.

Dred Scott and the Pursuit of Freedom

Among the hundreds of thousands of individual stories about slavery, Garner’s is just one—lucky to be preserved by Morrison’s talented pen and ultimately ending in tragedy. Dred Scott’s story, while tragic, endures of its own accord. His lawsuit, filed in circuit court in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1846 and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856, the same year that Garner attempted her own bid for freedom, made him one of the most important figures in 19th Century American history.

Born in Virginia around 1799, Dred Scott was owned by Peter and Elizabeth Blow. Seeking better fortunes, the Blows moved, with their slaves, first to Alabama and then in or around 1830 to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1831, the Blows sold Scott to Army surgeon John Emerson. Between 1831 and 1842, Dred Scott served Emerson in Missouri, Illinois, and at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota). The practice of slavery was illegal in the latter two places. During this 12-year period Scott married Harriet Robinson, an enslaved woman. The couple raised two daughters while serving Dr. Emerson and his wife Eliza Irene Sanford, primarily in free territory. The Scotts returned to St. Louis with the Emersons in 1842, and the surgeon died a year later. For several years, Mrs. Emerson hired out the Scotts in St. Louis.

In 1846, however, the Scotts filed suit against Emerson for their freedom and the freedom of their daughters on the grounds that for more than a decade they had lived in territory where slavery was illegal. The Scott family had reason to hope for a successful outcome to their lawsuit. Missouri courts had long been known to follow the doctrine of “once free, always free” in deciding similar cases. Indeed, the Scotts won their initial petition. But an appeals court reversed the decision. More appeals and many delays followed. In the meantime, Emerson remarried and transferred ownership of the Scotts to her brother John Sanford. Finally, a full decade after the original suit was filed, Dred Scott v. Sandford (a misspelling of Sanford originating at the time the lawsuit was filed) was argued before the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in 1856 and, on March 6, 1857, it ruled that the Scotts were to remain slaves. In its decision, however, the Court went beyond simply determining the legal status of the Scott family. Instead, it used the ruling to issue a sweeping statement on race and slavery in America. Writing for the Court’s majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney penned a blistering opinion meant to permanently declass African Americans by denying them U.S. citizenship rights. He also declared that Congress did not have the right to determine the slaveholding status of any portion of the United States. This final opinion further stoked the flames of sectional division over slavery in the Lower Midwest and the across the nation. This fire would not be extinguished until the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865.

Black Freedom in the Lower Midwest

Although the Scotts lost their legal case, allies purchased and then freed them soon afterward. Having enjoyed scarcely a year of freedom, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858. Originally buried in Wesleyan Cemetery in St. Louis, he is now interred in St. Louis’s historic Calvary Cemetery.

Harriet Scott, who lived another eighteen years, remained in St. Louis after her husband’s death. Pre-war St. Louis was a close-knit community of free blacks and urban slaves. In 1860, half of Missouri’s free black population, some 1,800 people, lived in the city. Together they and the 4,340 blacks enslaved there worked hard to create lives for themselves. The urban setting allowed for the creation of valuable community networks. Among these networks were churches like the First African Baptist Church, which operated a secret school even after the Missouri legislature banned education for slaves. For free blacks, St. Louis also provided a measure of safety in the form of safe houses where blacks could hide from slave catchers and kidnappers emboldened by the Fugitive Slave Act.

Harriet Scott lived to see slavery’s end. She died on June 17, 1876 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis. In 2010, a memorial pavilion was constructed on the cemetery’s grounds in her honor. In the years immediately following Harriet Scott’s death, St. Louis again became a refuge, this time for African Americans seeking to escape anti-black violence and economic and political oppression in Arkansas or the Deep South. The city also became a gateway for blacks heading to Kansas, Nebraska, or other parts of Missouri to homestead, reside in all-black communities, or to live in other urban areas. A separate stream of black people moved directly from the South into Indian Territory in search of the same freedoms and opportunities.

Although African Americans have been minorities for the entirety of their history in the Lower Midwest, their presence and experiences in this space brought forth some of the most critical debates, conversations, and issues that gripped the nation in the nineteenth century. It was the place where questions about slavery and freedom pushed the United States to the brink of war. It was also the place blacks traveled to in search of freedom before and after that war. In short, although the histories of African Americans in the Midwest are widely divergent, taken together they tell a quintessentially American story about the unceasing struggle for freedom.

In Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs, former slave, matriarch and preacher, says to her congregation, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Baby Suggs’s message is important for contemporary Midwesterners, writers, historians, and critics, as well. It is incumbent upon all of us to acknowledge, embrace, and—dare I say—love all of the people that make up the Midwest. In this way we fulfill the freedom dreams of Margaret Garner, Dred and Harriet Scott and all of our Midwestern forebears. 

Melissa Stuckey is an independent historian specializing in African American history and a visiting fellow at the Institute for African American Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Stuckey has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and is currently completing a book about Oklahoma’s all-black towns. She is the senior historical consultant for the Coltrane Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to historic preservation and economic development in Oklahoma’s surviving historic black towns. 


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