Despite being a free state and home to some of the nation’s most active abolitionists, Ohio had very oppressive and discriminatory laws that specifically targeted African Americans. The Ohio Black Codes made it illegal for blacks to vote, testify in court, receive an education, be employed in skilled jobs, or live in white neighborhoods. The codes also required blacks moving into the state to present their freedom papers. They were amended in 1807 to prohibit interracial marriage and black gun ownership.
Several Northern states passed Personal Liberty Laws to combat legal loopholes made possible by the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. The Constitution did not give any rights to enslaved people and the Fugitive Slave Acts maintained a fugitive’s legal status as a slave. Personal Liberty Laws varied by state but all made it more difficult for slave catchers to capture fugitives. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Rhode Island passed laws that forbade law enforcement from helping slave catchers in any capacity. These laws upset southerners and were opposed by some Northern states, namely Ohio, where liberty laws were repealed.
The Philadelphia Riot of 1842 was the last race riot in a thirteen-year string of racial violence in the city. On August 1, Irish Immigrants attacked peaceful black marchers celebrating the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. Over three days, several black neighborhoods were destroyed.
Born enslaved, Margaret Morgan left Maryland with her children and freeborn husband and moved to Pennsylvania in 1832. Her legal status was uncertain because her deceased master, John Ashmore, had allowed her to live as a free woman although her parents were slaves. Ashmore’s widow claimed Morgan as a fugitive and hired Edward Prigg and several other men to return her to Maryland. They captured Morgan and all four of her children. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania indicted Prigg on kidnapping charges, and he was convicted on May 22, 1839. He appealed his case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.
After being hired out by his master Charles Suttle, Anthony Burns befriended a northerner who helped him escape slavery in Virginia for freedom in Boston, Massachusetts. Through a letter Burns sent his brother, Suttle discovered his whereabouts and traveled to Boston to claim him. Burns was arrested and held at Massachusetts Court House. Radical abolitionists gathered to rescue him but the attempt failed and Burns was sold to a North Carolina slave owner for $905. Congregants of Twelfth Baptist Church in Virginia, Burns’ old church home, and minister G.S. Stockwell of Amherst, Massachusetts raised $1,300 to purchase his freedom.
The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant revival movement that began in 1790. The movement began in upstate New York, in an area known as the burned-over district. Within ten years, the movement spread further west to Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Ohio. Like the First Great Awakening, this series of revivals were organized and attended primarily by Methodists and Baptists. The Second Great Awakening peaked during the 1830s and 1840s, when abolitionists greatly organized and politicized their cause.
Held on October 26 and 27 in 1843, the State Convention of Colored Citizens was focused on procuring the equal and full rights of African Americans. The convention delegates included members of the Colored Vigilance Committee and prominent African American Detroiters. At the close of the conventions the delegates agreed to send an address to the State of Michigan outlining their political demands and petition for the right to vote.
While selling bibles in Nashville, Tennessee, Amos Dresser was accused of selling anti-slavery literature to enslaved and free black people. A workman at a carriage repair shop discovered Dresser’s anti-slavery periodicals while servicing his carriage. Constable John Braughton brought him before an impromptu Committee of Vigilance who sentenced him to twenty public lashes and ordered him to leave the city within twenty-four hours.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was enacted to correct the “flaws” of Article IV, Section 2 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stated that fugitive slaves should be returned to their masters but did not outline the responsibility state governments had in settling disputes. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 stated that a slave catcher could seize a fugitive, present him to a judge or magistrate and return the fugitive to their master. By the 1830s several judges throughout the north began claiming that the Act was unconstitutional, and several northern states passed personal liberty laws that made it more difficult for slave catchers to leave with a free person of color.
The Fugitive Slave Act initially served as a bill intended to quell grievances from northern and southern states following the Mexican-American War. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed the bill through Congress as a separate set of laws in a series of acts known as the Compromise of 1850. Technically, the act was an amendment to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which southerners felt gave northern states too much leeway when it came to enforcing the return of fugitives. President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law on September 18, 1850. Endangering the 10,000 fugitive slaves living in free states, the act required that all runaway slaves be returned to their masters upon capture. Response to the law in the free states varied from county to county and depended on the abolitionist character of the community.