By Daniel Manatt
The writer is the director of the forthcoming public television documentary "The Midwest: How the Heartland Made America," and is founder of TheMidwest.org, a documentary website on the history of the region. He is producer of the Humanities Iowa documentaries "Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing True Story of the Templeton Rye Bootleggers" and "The Fort: 177 Years of Crime and Punishment at the Iowa State Penitentiary."
On June 19, 1865, news reached African American slaves in Texas that they were free, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Today’s “Juneteenth” celebrations commemorate the day and more generally the end of slavery throughout America.
Long before the Civil War, key battles to end slavery had been fought far from the South — in the Midwest and Nebraska.
The Midwest was from its very inception a free territory. In 1787, slavery was banned in the region when the new American Congress enacted the so-called “Northwest Ordinance” — the law governing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
This Midwest slavery ban was immediately challenged by Southern slaveowners, who repeatedly attempted to repeal the ban. Their efforts were defeated as anti-slavery Midwesterners voted again and again to extend the slavery ban. In fact, the language of the Midwest slavery ban became the model for the 13th Amendment, forever banning slavery throughout America.
Even so, the Midwest slavery ban faced several setbacks — episodes that helped trigger the Civil War.
In 1854, Congress set the terms of Nebraska’s statehood in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Under the Midwest slavery ban and so-called “Missouri Compromise,” all Midwest states other than Missouri were to be free states. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the law, providing instead that in future Midwest states, voters could decide to allow slavery. The law infuriated anti-slavery activists, since it resulted in slave owners rushing into the new states with slaves.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act itself sparked a shooting war in Kansas called “Bleeding Kansas.” Armed pro-slavery and anti-slavery militia burned towns, destroyed crops and killed their adversaries in a de facto guerrilla war. Bleeding Kansas’ most famous and infamous combatant was himself a Midwesterner: Ohio’s John Brown, whose band killed five slavery supporters.
In 1858, Brown struck again in his campaign to end slavery — this time in Missouri and Nebraska. Brown raided the farms of several Missouri slave owners, freeing 12 African Americans. Reaching Nebraska City, the newly freed African Americans hid at the cabin of a homesteading family, Allen and Barbara Mayhew. An armed posse pursued the group, searching the Mayhew cabin, but the group finally reached the asylum of Canada.
The Midwest slavery ban saw another major challenge the year before Brown’s Missouri raids. Dred Scott, a Missouri slave, was taken by his “owner” for four years to Illinois and to Fort Snelling in the future state of Minnesota. Back in St. Louis, Scott sued for his freedom, since both Illinois and Minnesota were free territories under Midwest slavery bans.
The jury in his case — jurors from the slave state of Missouri — agreed with Scott, and set him free.
But the U.S. Supreme Court — dominated by justices from the slaveholding South — disagreed, ruling the Midwest slavery ban a dead letter. Legal scholars to this day condemn the decision as the most infamous case of judicial activism in the history of the court.
The Midwest also contributed to the freeing of African American slaves during the famous “march through Georgia” of Ohio Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
The vast majority of Sherman’s 60,000 troops had one thing in common: They were from the Midwest. By the time Sherman’s Midwest army reached Savannah, 20,000 freed African Americans had joined the march.
Finally, the emancipation of African American slaves in the South was triggered by the actions of the most famous Midwesterner of all time — a man whose beliefs and values are arguably the embodiment of the Midwest character:
The Midwest, in short, was the site of some of the greatest triumphs in the cause of African American freedom.
But it was also the site of some of its greatest tragedies.
Nothing illustrates the latter point more starkly than this:
Dred Scott, during his time in Minnesota, lived at Fort Snelling on the Mississippi River. Five miles to northeast, in what today is central Minneapolis, is the latest tragic site in the history of African Americans:
The site of the murder of George Floyd.