Reconsidering the "Forced" Exodus of 1829: Free Black Emigration from Cincinnati, Ohio to Wilberforce, Canada

Article excerpt

In late August 1829, whites, determined to enforce old laws deterring black settlement in the state of Ohio, provoked an exodus of over half the black population from the city of Cincinnati. Typically, antebellum mob action directed toward free blacks was intended to punish or intimidate; rarely, if ever, was the goal to force an exodus of the entire black population. The mob action of 1829 was one of the earliest examples in American history of a white effort to forcibly "cleanse" society of its black population. Although the 1829 mob action stands as an important benchmark in Cincinnati's history, the subsequent mass migration of 1,100--2,000 free blacks from the city should not be considered an act of mass victimization. In fact, in an 'act of self-determination' a portion of the black community that quit Cincinnati in 1829 established an independent, all-black colony in Ontario, Canada that they named Wilberforce. (1) Emigration to Wilberforce not only proves that these African Americans resisted oppress ion, but that they defined and pursued freedom on their own terms.

Early historians of the 1829 African American exodus from Cincinnati, such as Carter G. Woodson, Frank Quillin, and David Gerber, argue that decades of social persecution, economic and political repression against African Americans were eclipsed by the mob violence of 1829. (2)

This interpretation suggests that violence was the precipitator of the exodus. However, the evidence suggests that only some African Americans who left did so because of the violence; many others were involved in an organized program to emigrate from Cincinnati. Although this exodus was fueled by oppressive social and economic conditions, including mob violence, it was also driven by the collective goals of a community desiring self-determination. A narrow focus on the violence obscures this emigrationist impulse within Cincinnati's black community. Such a focus also fails to present African Americans as agents of their own destinies; in fact, it casts them as victims and powerless refugees.

Even those historians who do acknowledge an organized emigration scheme depict Wilberforce as a hastily and poorly planned colony established in response to the violence in Cincinnati. This interpretation reduces the emigrationist intentions to little more than a reaction to the violence; Wilberforce's significance as an emigrationist colony is diminished. The settlement has certainly never been acknowledged in the literature on black emigrationist movements. Even in his seminal work on emigration and colonization, historian Floyd J. Miller fails to acknowledge Wilberforce as a legitimate emigrationist colony. (3)

Historians of black Canadian history have also been reluctant to concede the significance of either Wilberforce or the emigration scheme that gave birth to it. In fact, historians Robin Winks, Daniel Hill, Jason Silverman, and Donald George Simpson have all concluded that by the mid-1830s, with its leadership divided and its internal organization broken, Wilberforce was a failure. (4) Jane Pease and William H. Pease, among the most vehement critics of the settlement, labeled it a 'total failure," "a forlorn dream." (5) Robin Winks attributes the "failure" to internal strife among the colony's leaders. Similarly, Daniel Hill concludes that the settlement's demise was due to "poor luck, bad management, and the dishonesty of some of its leaders..." (6) Canadian scholar Donald George Simpson provides a more complicated conclusion; in addition to the leadership, Simpson attributes the colony's demise to the prejudices of the Irish for demanding that the Canada Company stop selling land to African Americans and th e company's acquiescence. (7) The colony's harshest critic is historian Jason Silverman. Silverman charges that Wilberforce's leaders "alienated prospective white patronage," and "proved the incapability of black self-sufficiency and the unfeasibility of future planned black settlements. …