By Tiffany, Mattawa Public Library
Beginning with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, free Black Americans established farms and settlements on Native land in what was then called the Northwest Territory — the area that would become Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. While dismissing any rights of Indigenous populations, it was the first U.S. territory to ban slavery and have equal voting rights for all owners of more than 50 acres regardless of skin color.
As we continue our commemoration of Black History Month, we are taking a closer look at Blacks in the early west.
Home to many free black communities in the early 1800’s, the Northwest Territory also normalized racially integrated churches and schools. By the 1860 census there were 63,000 African Americans living in the region. It was a reaction against these thriving communities that marked history and obscured the influence of Black individuals during this time period.
You can read more about these communities in The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality by Anna-Lisa Cox, available from our collection.
Marking his own footsteps west in the Northwest Territory was Green Flake, an enslaved African American and baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Along with Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay, also enslaved individuals, Green Flake helped prepare the way for what was to become the “Mormon Migration” in clearing the trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Winter Quarters (Nebraska) and preparing for the settlement of Utah when he accompanied Brigham Young to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. By the time his enslavers arrived in the Utah Territory he had already started a cabin for them and planted crops.
The courageous faith of Green Flake inspired Black LDS film maker Mauli Bonner to produce His Name is Green Flake: The True Story of a Pioneer Hero, which has won multiple international awards as an independent film and is newly available to borrow from NCW Libraries.
Along with these important stories, find more Black History of the early west on the shelves of your local library.