Interview: Kate Masur, Author Of 'Until Justice Be Done' The South practiced slavery before the Civil War — but Northern states like Ohio and Indiana had Black laws, restrictive codes that criminalized and constrained the lives of free Black residents

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

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The historian Kate Masur has followed the news of recent years while also dwelling in the past. She was researching American history in the first half of the 1800s. Most people know Southern states practiced slavery in those years before the Civil War. Fewer people may know what happened in Northern states known as free states. Those states banned slavery and had free Black residents. But many states regulated Black residents with so-called Black laws.

KATE MASUR: Black laws did things like require that free African Americans register with county officials if they wanted to live in a particular county. 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.

INSKEEP: The law has discouraged free Black people from moving in. Kate Masur's book on the Black laws is called "Until Justice Be Done." She researched the laws in states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Some white people talk today about poverty or crime or the inner city when they really mean Black people. I'm Kate Masur discovered some white people talking that way in the 19th century.

MASUR: It was really interesting to see the rhetoric around the justifications for these laws. And 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.

INSKEEP: Well, let's look at Ohio, which you said was the first state to pass a set of Black laws with the goal of somehow controlling the Black population or even keeping it out. Did the law work?

MASUR: 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.

INSKEEP: Although they must have absolutely affected individuals' lives. You recount incidents in which a free Black person is walking along and is thrown in jail because a white person thinks he might possibly be an escaped slave.

MASUR: Right. So 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, you know? 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.

INSKEEP: Now, you subtitle the book "America's First Civil Rights Movement." Who were the people who rose up against the Black laws and fought to have them overturned?

MASUR: 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.

INSKEEP: What were some of the tactics they used to build public support and call attention to their cause?

MASUR: One thing they did was petition the state legislatures. And in that time, petitioning had a certain value, a certain importance. There was a tradition that state legislatures or anybody receiving a petition had to deal with the petition. And very often, the legislative committee would come back and say, we support these laws. We need these laws. But then the movement - the people trying to repeal the laws - would publish those reports and used the reports to describe the injustice that people faced.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking this is a time when the number of newspapers is getting larger and larger every single year. There must have been certain papers that would. take up this cause and get it out to people.

MASUR: So those newspapers - there was one that was phenomenal out of Cincinnati called The Philanthropist - would publicize these issues relentlessly. And sometimes then the more mainstream papers would pick up these stories and discuss the issue. And then you have the development of a Black press as well. And one of the things that I found most compelling was an organization of African Americans in 1843 and Columbus, Ohio, that created their own newspaper, The Palladium of Liberty.

INSKEEP: Did Ohio get rid of its Black laws?

MASUR: Ohio was the most successful - 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.

INSKEEP: What's it been like the last few years to research all of this history while living in Chicago, in one of those original Northern states in current times with the news that we've been - we've all been watching?

MASUR: 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 kind of 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.

INSKEEP: Kate Masur is the author of the new book "Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution To Reconstruction." Thanks so much.

MASUR: Thank you.


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