Race, Respectability, and Resilience: African Americans in the Midwest

Cathleen Martin, 2018-19 Mellon Foundation-Newberry Teacher Fellow


In the popular imagination of what constitutes the Midwest, the African American presence is often obscured or missing altogether. When the African American presence does get mentioned, more often than not it’s predicated on highlighting or representing black folks as a problem to be solved. For example, in an article published in 2015 by, 24/7 Wall Street entitled “The Worst Places for African Americans,” all 10 entries were in the Midwest. This digital collection, therefore, offers a corrective on two separate historical accounts. Between the tendencies of being absent or hidden from the narrative and merely identified as a “problem,” we can locate African American Midwesterners themselves–in their own experiences—and let those experiences speak for them. When we do so, certain African American Midwestern values–around race, respectability, and resilience—begin to emerge.

The Midwest is not, nor has it ever been, a place devoid of racial conflict. However, the documents in this digital collection at times point to the Midwest as a middle ground in race relations. Politically, the Missouri Compromise placed the Midwest in the “middle” of the controversy over slavery. Culturally and socially, the Midwest also functioned as a liminal space between slavery and true freedom. While the Midwest has been as mired in racial hostilities as any region in the U.S., at times, these documents present racial understandings, interactions, and possibilities where something new (and perhaps unexpected) was able to thrive and take shape.

The documents in this collection span a great deal of time and distance; nonetheless, there are generalizations that can be made about the Midwestern experiences, and identities, of African Americans. How African Americans both navigate and forge this new cultural and racial terrain can be understood through the values they articulate—regarding race, respectability and resilience. While it is tempting to see respectability politics and the need to be resilient in the face of adversity as additional forms of racial oppression, the personal and political agency of African Americans in articulating these values as a means to subvert stereotypes, subjugation and racial barriers is an important aspect to understanding the experiences of African Americans in the Midwest.

Questions to Consider While Exploring the Collection:

  • In what ways are African Americans articulating a vision of what the Midwest is or can be?

  • What measures do African Americans take to shape the region according to their own designs, hopes, and needs?

  • How do African Americans in the Midwest experience themselves as in the middle (or between) Southern or coastal African American experiences?

  • When fissures are forged in white supremacy, in what ways do African Americans exploit those new possibilities/opportunities in their own self-interests?

  • In what ways do white Midwesterners resist the new racial paradigm that African Americans seek to create?

Key Terms and Definitions

Parity: The state of condition of being equal.

Respectability Politics: Attempts by marginalized groups to voice their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference.

Resilience: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

Fissure: A split or crack to form a long narrow opening; used symbolically to indicate a new opening or possibility.

Agency: The capacity condition, or state of acting or of exerting power; a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved.

Manumitted: Released from slavery; set free.

Disdain: The feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect; contempt.

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The 19th Century: Forging New Identities

Document 1. Illinois Madison County Court Records 1813-1818 and Indenture Records 1805-1826: Register of Slaves, Indentured Servants & Free Persons of Colour. Copied from a typed transcription by Edna Feldner, dated April 1939, for the Works Progress Administration. The original is located in the Illinois State Archives in Springfield, Illinois. The original ledger is presumed to have been lost or destroyed.

Enacted on July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in Illinois (although it also provided the first fugitive slave act). Despite the illegality of slavery, some whites sought to maintain the institution by petitioning to have their enslaved workers recognized as indentured servants. They even continued this informal slave trade by selling their indentured status to a third party. Sometimes the petitioner sought to include the “heirs” of their enslaved workers in an attempt to retain the hereditary aspect of American slavery as well. Other times they did not. Sometimes they manumitted their enslaved workers altogether. There are in fact historical records of enslaved men and women refusing to agree to indentured servitude, so we know that such negotiations weren’t unheard of.

1a. p. 89 Joshua Vaughan petitioned to commit the enslaved Jack Boneparte (and his heirs) to indentured servitude for ninety years.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What did Jack Boneparte agree to according to this petition?

  2. What did Joshua Vaughan agree to according to this petition?

  3. There are recorded instances in which enslaved men and women refused to agree to indentured servitude when entering the Northwest Territories. What type of agency do you think Jack had in negotiating the terms of his “service?”

  4. What options do you think Jack may have had?

1b. p. 97 Samuel Judy petitioned to have his enslaved worker James Suggs Singleton’s status converted to an indentured servant for a period of twelve years.

Questions to Consider:

  1. If one were to compare this petition with the previous one, how much agency do you think James Suggs Singleton had in negotiating the terms of his indentured servitude?

  2. What conditions might have afforded him to receive only a twelve-year period of servitude?

  3. How might other African Americans brought into the Midwestern region during this time period have negotiated the conditions of their work and advocated for their own freedom?

1c. p. 98 Starting with “This day personally came James Suggs Singleton with Phillis his wife…” On December 8, 1813 Illinois passed an act to prevent the Migration of Free Blacks and “Mulattoes” from entering into the territory. The clerk recording the names of formerly enslaved persons, in order to comply with this law, states that it wasn’t completed in time because the county was previously unaware of the law.

Questions to Consider:

  1. This document gives us insight into both the agency Ms. Singleton had in negotiating his work status and why he would agree to indentured servitude. Where can you see his agency at work?

  2. This registration took place sometime after the 1813 law, which compelled free persons to register in order to remain in the territory. He is listed as having been manumitted from his previous owner John Edgar. It pre-dates the record in which James Suggs Singleton entered indentured servitude. With this information available to us to guide our interpretation, why would he be willing go from freedom to indentured servitude?

  3. What circumstances might have compelled James to negotiate his labor under these terms?

1d. p. 104 Beginning “A male child of colour…” through …”He is now at liberty to pass into the state of Maryland or any other state as he may think proper and return at his option.”

African American parents of free or “mulatto” (mixed-race) children scrambled to assure their children’s safety and well-being, in light of this new 1813 Illinois law preventing the migration of free-blacks and “mulattos.” It also represented an opportunity to legally acknowledge their children’s freedom.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What does the fact that some enslaved parents had free children say about slavery in places like Illinois?

  2. What does Michael Lee’s situation demonstrate about slavery/ servitude in Illinois?

  3. Why is Rebecca Guest’s testimony that he “has a good countenance” important? What is the potential significance of such a remark?

  4. Is this description an example of respectability politics? Why or why not?

1e. p. 109 Starting with “Be it remembered that on the eighteenth day of February…” through to the end of the paragraph.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Do you believe that Janet voluntarily became the indentured servant of Joseph Conway? If so, what evidence suggests her decision to do so?

  2. Why do you think her consent is stated in the record?

  3. What possible agency might exist for Janet in these circumstances?

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The 19th and 20th Centuries: Navigating New Racial Terrains

Document 2. Monroe County Iowa: Compiled and written by the Iowa Writers’ Program of The Work Projects Administration For the Sate of Iowa. Sponsored by County Superintendent of Schools Monroe County 1940.

Buxton, Iowa, while a multi-ethnic mining town, was a majority African American town. It was often referred to as “a black man’s town.” By all accounts, Ben Buxton, the president of Consolidation Coal Company, ran a company town in which there was parity among whites and blacks in housing, employment, and education. African Americans came from coal mining areas of Virginia and West Virginia seeking both work and the freedom they found in this short-lived town. Eventually, the town folded along with its coal reserves, but it stands as a testament to the fissures in Midwestern race relations that existed and were successfully exploited by African Americans in their own self-interest.

2a. p. 58 Starting with “As the mining industry expanded…” through p. 59 ending with “Negro workers at the expense of the whites.”

Questions to Consider:

  1. What expectations do you think the African Americans coming to Buxton brought with them?

  2. How do their actions (both migrating and shooting back at their attackers) point to a sense of determination and resilience?

  3. Why might black workers have been willing to work as strike busters?

2b. p. 60 Starting with ”During the next few years….” Through p. 61 ending with “…education is self-control; control yourself, and your family and your children.”

Questions to Consider:

  1. How might the author’s use of the word “imported” from Alabama shape the reader’s perspective on the migration of African Americans to Buxton? How does it shape perspectives on the sense of agency on the part of African Americans?

  2. Why do you think the author assumes that these workers were coming from Alabama?

  3. Do you trust the author’s take on Booker T. Washington’s speech? In what ways might this speech (as it is presented) serve the interests of white Midwesterners and their resistance to the vision of the Midwest African Americans were attempting to forge?

  4. Assuming that Booker T. Washington’s words are well represented, in what ways might he be engaging in respectability politics? Please explain.

  5. How might the respectability politics (defined here as “self control” and “control”) have harmed the efforts of African Americans to seek racial justice? In what ways might it have promoted racial justice?

  6. How is gender working in the phrase “solve your own problems…”? Is that a traditionally masculine or feminine claim? What could be the consequences of this gendered claim for African American men and women?

  7. As African Americans left Buxton and settled in other areas, what expectations and practices do you think they brought with them to their new destinations?

Document 3. A Hundred-Year Journal: A Pictorial History of the Early Black Settlers of Stephenson County, Illinois 1830-1960. Written by Joyce Salter Johnson 2010 (book contains no page numbers)

The first African American to arrive in Stephenson County Illinois came from Virginia. She was a free woman who was a stowaway among a white family who were traveling to Wisconsin, after freeing their enslaved workers made them unpopular in their native county. Unfortunately she died along the way and was buried near Cedarville, Illinois—free territory.

Over the years African Americans also sought freedom and justice in what would become known as the Midwest. When historical moments presented themselves, brave, tenacious and determined men and women took advantage of those opportunities to carve new racial possibilities. The end of the Civil War, the Great Migration, and WWII were among some of the historical events in which African Americans sought to craft better lives for themselves and their communities.

3a. Section 3 Black Residents Living in Stephenson County after the Civil War

Questions to Consider:

  1. In what ways did African Americans utilize technology in order to create new opportunities?

  2. How would the search for a better life have entailed different considerations than for their white counterparts?—many of whom also sought to do the same.

3b. Section 6 World War I (the entire page)

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why do you think so many African Americans were willing to fight in WWI on behalf of a country in which they were unable to experience full equality? (This included their willingness to serve in segregated military units.)

  2. Whose decision do you think it was to spare them from the oppressive Jim Crow Laws? How do you think those same people justified requiring them to instead serve in segregated camps in the North?

  3. In what ways does the decision of African Americans to participate in this war demonstrate their resilience in the face of racial discrimination? In what ways does it employ the tactics of “respectability politics”?

3c. Section 8: Building A Community-East Freeport (19th page after title Image on right side of the page—top Sunday Schools Teachers of Saint Paul Church Missionary Baptist Church—below Sunday Schools Students of the Same Church and Section 11: East Side School Freeport (1st Page after title) Image of East Side Class of 1933.

Questions to Consider:

  1. After studying these two sets of pictures side by side, what do you notice?

  2. What possible information do they present about segregation (or the lack thereof) in small Midwestern towns like Freeport?

  3. Why do you think schools weren’t segregated? Why do you think churches were segregated?

  4. Who do you think made the decisions to segregate or integrate social spaces?

  5. Why might African Americans opt for segregated churches, but advocate for integrated schools?

  6. How do these images provide clues to this decision-making process?

Document 4. The Idlewild Community: Black Eden. By Lewis Walker and Ben C. Wilson

Idlewild was established as an African American resort community in the state of Michigan. It was founded in response to the experience of segregation and discrimination of otherwise affluent African Americans.

4a. Pictures on p. 48 “well dressed resort-goers”, pg 104 (fishing) and page 106 “Horseback Riders”

Questions to Consider:

  1. Take some time to examine all three pictures.

  2. Why do you think the first caption states that the vacationers are “well-dressed?” How does this description relate to the idea of respectability politics?

  3. In what ways do clothes reflect notions of respectability?

  4. In what ways do you think the desire to appear respectable influenced the cultural expression (and purchasing practices) of African Americans?

4b. p. 59-60 Starting with “When “fair” (i.e., light-skinned) Negroes seem inordinately proud…” through …”result of propaganda.” Pg 60 Beginning through “Yet for some, color was a factor” and p. 61 Starting with “If they could afford it…” through “present them with a competitive challenge.”

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why do you think skin color politics became so influential in towns like Idlewild?

  2. In what ways is skin color associated with respectability within this African American community?

  3. What specific evidence points to this relationship between skin color and respectability?

4c. p. 130 “The Immediate tangible economic benefits…” and p. 135 “Not only did integration have negative consequences.”

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why did most African Americans abandon African American social spaces, like Idlewild after the end of segregation?

  2. Please look up the “Public Accommodations Act.”

  3. In light of the post-segregation decline of African American leisure businesses, after th passage of the Public Accommodations Act was passed, in what ways did white businesses benefit from desegregation?

  4. What’s the irony of black businesses declining as a result of desegregation?

Document 5. American Daughter by Era Bell Thompson

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Era Bell Thompson spent most of her life in the Midwest. As a small child she lived in North Dakota and later attended the University of North Dakota in 1925. She eventually moved to Chicago and worked in the field of journalism. Her autobiography, American Daughter, was published in 1946. Her second book, Africa, Land of My Fathers, was published in 1954. She is noted for having contributed to the promotion of racial and gender understanding.

5a. p. 26-27 Visited by “Norwegian couple and a coloured missionary woman”

Questions to Consider:

  1. How does the experience of having white neighbors who were born outside of the U.S. shape Era’s experience in the Midwest?

  2. How do their “foreign” understandings of race create new possibilities and new racial interactions?

5b. p. 212 Working as employment service interviewer in Chicago Era Bell Thompson states, “To the southerner new to the North it sometimes takes a bit of doing to come to a Negro for an interview. “You know,” said a disheveled, unshaven Okie, “I ain’t never seen no cullud folks workin’ in offices before.”

Questions to Consider:

  1. How does this document further prove that certain racial boundaries could be transgressed in the Midwest?

  2. Based on this white man’s response to seeing Era Bell Thompson in a position of power, how often do you think these racial boundaries were crossed?

  3. How do experiences like this one point to the possibility that the Midwest has been a place where racial boundaries can be transgressed (crossed) at certain times and in certain places?

5c. p. 182 “Now that I had a steady job, I began to look around me and evaluate the world in which I found myself. Comparing it with white standards, weighing it on white scales, I found it wanting; found myself hating the common Negro who had recently migrated from the South without benefit of freedom or education, who, having never had rights of his own, lacked respect for the rights of others. I hated his loud, coarse manners, loathed his flashy clothes and ostentatious display of superficial wealth; yet by his standards all of us were judged; for his actions, all condemned and imprisoned in a black ghetto, separated from all the other peoples of the city by covenants of prejudice and segregation.”

Questions to Consider:

  1. How does Era Bell Thompson’s disdain for less educated African Americans reflect the notion of respectability politics?

  2. Why does she say she began to adopt this attitude?

  3. What other events/circumstances do you think may have contributed to her feelings and beliefs?

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