Borders and Belonging: The Precarity of Citizenship from Slavery to Freedom

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, IEHS, SHFG, SHGAPE, and Western History Association

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 8:45 AM - 10:15 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Politics; Slavery


“Borders and Belonging: The Precarity of Citizenship from Slavery to Freedom" showcases three studies that explore the complex citizenship politics of the long nineteenth century. The first two studies discuss how free Black communities in Northern states simultaneously resisted slavery and racial segregation in decades leading up to the American Civil War. Ousmane Power-Greene examines how suffrage restrictions and other “Black Laws” in Ohio motivated some free Black people to migrate to Liberia, in order to live under a government that would guarantee them the full exercise of their rights as citizens. In doing so, this study situates debates over Black citizenship that have figured prominently in recent work by Martha Jones and Kate Masur in a transatlantic context. Duangkamol Tantirungkij explores how free Black people in Illinois put pressure on state courts to recognize their basic legal rights as part of a broader effort to fight kidnapping on the Illinois-Missouri border. This study focuses on court cases where litigants and their lawyers argued in Missouri courts that the Northwest Ordinance guaranteed them due process rights and in effect forced a Southern state government to respect the federal ban on slavery. The final study discusses the limits of civil rights reform during Reconstruction. Padraig Riley investigates how slaveholder power shaped immigration policy at the federal level, through the 1790 Naturalization Act (which restricted naturalization to “free white persons”), and at the state level, through laws restricting the entry and movement of free Black people. This prior history informed debates over the 1870 Naturalization Act, as the racism that Southerners had once used to legitimize the institution of slavery evolved to target Chinese migrants and other non-white immigrants, and Congress ultimately retained the “free white person” restriction at the height of Radical Reconstruction. Together, these three studies illustrate how federal and state policies impacted Black Americans’ sense of belonging and acts of resistance in the face of racist restrictions on their movement, their legal status, and their lives. The panel will shed new light on the citizenship politics of the antebellum period, as well as the deep impact of the antebellum citizenship regime, forged by slavery and race, on the precarious states of freedom, belonging, and exclusion that continue to define contemporary American political order.

Papers Presented

“Practices of Constraint: Citizenship and Subordination from Slavery to Freedom”

By instituting birthright citizenship and the equal protection of the laws, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution promised to overturn the racist citizenship regime of the antebellum slaveholding republic. Most prominently articulated in Roger S. Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), that regime was based on a patchwork of laws that constrained Black Americans from claiming equal standing in state and national political communities. The most explicit of these laws were state-level restrictions on the physical presence or movement of Black Americans. First enacted in the upper South after the Revolution, restrictions on Black movement spread to the new states of the Northwest territory, and eventually, all the way to the new western state of Oregon, admitted to the union in 1859 with a clause in its state constitution excluding Black people from entry. Antislavery activists, both Black and white, contested these laws, arguing that free Black Americans, both by virtue of their birth in the United States and their acknowledged citizenship in individual states, were entitled to certain fundamental rights, including the right to move freely through American territory. But they faced a strong counter-argument from slaveholders and their allies, who contended on federalist grounds that the states retained the power to police their own populations as they saw fit and on nationalist grounds that Black Americans were explicitly excluded from the American political community. Here slaveholders often pointed to the 1790 Naturalization Act, which limited naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person,” thus demonstrating, they argued, a founding intent to create a racialized political community. While the 14th Amendment appeared to overturn such claims, the protean character of American racism shifted course after 1868. In debates over the 1870 Naturalization Act, Senators from Oregon and other western states refurbished slaveholder citizenship politics for a new era. They allowed that naturalization policy should no longer exclude persons of African descent, but they fought to maintain the exclusion of all other persons deemed non-white, to prevent Chinese migrants from claiming political status in the United States. This marked an early and decisive attempt to limit the universality of the Reconstruction era citizenship regime. Instead of rejecting racial limits on naturalization, Senators retained them; instead of repudiating the antebellum use of police powers to constrain Black mobility, they repurposed those doctrines in service of an emerging national immigration regime. By examining the debates over the 1870 Naturalization Act in light of antebellum citizenship politics, this paper will examine how constraining movement and limiting access to naturalization cemented the legal vulnerability of people whom the state sought to keep subordinate. These practices of constraint, generated by slavery, continue to shape the regulation of citizenship down to our own time.

Presented By
Padraig Griffin Riley, Reed College

Litigating Freedom on the Illinois-Missouri Border (1820-1850)

This study focuses on the presence of Illinois’ free African Americans in Missouri court records. Building upon recent scholarship on freedom suits by Lea VanderVelde, Kelly Kennington, and Anne S. Twitty, this study contextualizes litigation over slavery along the Illinois-Missouri border in the broader national political debates over slavery’s westward march. Examining how free African Americans fought against kidnapping along the Illinois-Missouri border can help scholars better understand how these litigants put pressure on the judicial system in both states to uphold their legal personhood and due process rights. Some of these kidnapping cases forced Missouri courts to grapple with a legal conundrum. What was the legal status of children born to slaves living on the Illinois side of the border after the Continental Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787? Furthermore, what basic legal rights did these individuals have as adults? By revisiting these questions, this study encourages scholars to rethink the prevailing narrative about the status of free African Americans in Northern states, which often depicts life under restrictions on suffrage, employment, immigration, and access to public services as hardly different from life under slavery. Furthermore, this study encourages scholars to move beyond the image of Illinois’ free African Americans as perpetually marginalized and disempowered by demonstrating that these individuals had at their disposal more tools and strategies to combat slavery and racial discrimination than historians have previously understood. Considering the recent attacks on birthright citizenship in the United States, this study joins the call for more research into the origins of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Presented By
Duangkamol Tantirungkij, CUNY Graduate Center

“Where Colored men, only, are recognized as citizens”: Racial exclusion and the making of Black citizens in Liberia

In September 1850, Peter H. Clark, the black abolitionists from Cincinnati, Ohio mailed a letter to the American Colonization to inquire about passage to Liberia, having “resolved to emigrate” there with several others. As a community leader, one of the first black teachers in the city, his interest in leaving for Liberia seems to clash with the overall sentiment of those blacks living in Ohio and other Midwestern states who affirmed time and time again their desire to stay and fight for equal rights in the United States. However, Peter H. Clark, like other Blacks who joined the colonization movement, reconsidered Liberia in the late 1840s given its transformation from American Colonization Society dependency to the first Black American-led nation. Indeed, Liberia was the only nation where Black people - those of African descent rather than those of European descent - could become citizens of the Republic. This racial provision was in stride with states in the North and Midwest which revised their state constitutions to include the word “white” as a condition of citizenship. Such racial exclusion in Ohio inspired some to fight, while others chose to leave for Liberia to participate in its nascent nation-building project. Building on works, such as Martha S. Jones’ Birthright Citizenship, Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done, and Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s Colored Travelers, this paper places the debate over Black citizenship rights in the US within transatlantic context, as Black Americans from midwestern states like Ohio witnessed state and federal legislators conspire to restrict their citizenship rights. Moreover, this paper examines those Black people who came to regard Liberia as the only place where Black people could live free of racial animus or legal constraints.

Presented By
Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Clark University

Session Participants

Chair: Stacey L. Smith, Oregon State University
Stacey Smith specializes in the history of the North American West, with a particular emphasis on race relations, labor, and politics during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. She teaches courses on the American West and the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as the U.S. history survey. Her book, Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), won the inaugural David Montgomery award in U.S. labor and working-class history from the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association. She has also published her work in the Pacific Historical Review, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and the Journal of the Civil War Era and has written for the New York Times and the Black

Commentator: Sarah L. H. Gronningsater, UPenn
Sarah Gronningsater is an assistant professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specializes in 18th- and 19th-century American history. Her research interests lie in the laws, politics, and social experiences of antislavery and slavery. She is the author of, among other articles, “ 'Expressly Recognized by Our Election Laws': Certificates of Freedom and the Multiple Fates of Black Citizenship in the Early Republic,” William and Mary Quarterly (2018) and “'On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves': Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis,” Journal of the Civil War Era (2017). She is completing a book entitled, The Arc of Abolition: The Children of Gradual Emancipation and the Origins of National Freedom (Penn Press).

Presenter: Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Clark University
Dr. Ousmane Power-Greene is an Associate Professor in the history department and director of Africana Studies at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He completed his B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.Ed., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Professor Power-Greene’s first book, Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement (NYU Press 2014), examines black Americans’ efforts to agitate in opposition to the American Colonization Society’s racial deportation project to Liberia. He is co-editor with Ronald A. Johnson for a collection of essays titled, In Search of Liberty: Nineteenth Century African American Internationalism (University of Georgia Press, Spring 2021). His current book project explores black American activists and intellectuals who joined the colonization movement and left for Liberia. Over his career, his scholarship has been recognized with various fellowships, most notably the prestigious Schomburg Center scholar-in-residence program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dr. Power-Greene has presented his scholarship in Italy, Germany, France, England, Ghana, and China. He reviews books for American Historical Review, Journal of American History, Journal of Southern History, among others.

Presenter: Padraig Griffin Riley, Reed College
Padraig Riley is a Visiting Associate Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America and “Rethinking White Supremacy: Black Resistance and the Problem of Slaveholder Authority” in Revolutions and Reconstructions: Black Politics in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Van Gosse and David Waldstreicher.

Presenter: Duangkamol Tantirungkij, CUNY Graduate Center
Duangkamol Tantirungkij is a student in the Doctoral Program in History at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. She also serves as an adjunct instructor for undergraduate history courses at Hunter College. Her dissertation project explores the relationship between slavery and the law in the settlement of the Old Northwest.