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Struggle for Freedom (210 - 100 Before the Present)

Africans were brought to North America in the early 1600s on European ships. A racially-based system of slavery developed gradually, but was firmly in place by the early 1700s. As part of the Northwest Territory in the early colonial period, the land that is now Ohio forbade slavery under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio became a U.S. state in 1803 and the first state in the Northwest Territory to outlaw slavery.

Although Ohio legally did not permit slavery, like many other states, the local population remained divided on slavery issues. Many Ohioans were staunchly against emancipation and influenced the Ohio legislature to pass several laws that limited the civil liberties of African Americans. These laws prohibited blacks from testifying against whites and serving on juries in public courts and severely hampered the ability for free blacks to immigrate to Ohio and obtain jobs. African Americans in Ohio also lacked the right to vote, participate in the militia, send their children to public schools, and use many other public services. Many African Americans in the southern portions of the state worked for white land owners in conditions that closely resembled slavery.

Despite early racist legislation, Ohio came to be a critical player in the fight for African American emancipation. In the 1830s, Ohio activists played an important role in the anti-slavery movement. Abolitionists targeted the state as an important place to advocate for black civil liberties. Of the western states, Ohio was the most populous, the wealthiest, and the oldest, providing a stable platform from which to launch critical campaigns.

One of the most important ways that Ohio citizens helped enslaved African Americans was through participation in the Underground Railroad. Ohio was a major route on the Underground Railroad until slavery was federally outlawed in 1865. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legally allowed bounty hunters to retrieve escaped slaves from across state lines. The Act increased the danger that both free and runaway blacks would be kidnapped or captured and forced to return to slave states. At the time, Ohio offered no legal protection to runaway slaves and people who aided runaways were severely fined. The Underground Railroad offered a furtive means by which African Americans could cross into safe areas. Twenty-three Railway entry points were present along the Ohio River. Fugitives fled to Ohio or traveled northward to neighboring "free" states or across the border to Canada. In particular, the staunchly abolitionist town of Oberlin served a critical role in the Underground Railroad.

The majority of Ohioans were allied with the Union in the Civil War. Many men from Ohio served in the Union army, including a number of African American men who were permitted to enlist after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. When the Civil War ended, African American men and women substantially contributed to Ohio's social and economic development during Reconstruction Period and beyond.