Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

From Statehood to Reconstruction: No Longer Slaves, Not Yet Citizens

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

From Statehood to Reconstruction: No Longer Slaves, Not Yet Citizens

Article excerpt

A. The Legal Status of Blacks from Statehood to the Civil War

The end of slavery in Michigan was made official with statehood. Michigan's first constitution, adopted in 1835, provided that: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever be introduced into this state, except for the punishment of crimes of which the party shall have been duly convicted." (1)

Although slavery was proscribed, its underlying racist ideology remained. In Michigan, as in virtually every region of the United States, a majority of whites believed in the biological inferiority of blacks and in their own innate superiority. It was not inconsistent, however, for many whites to abhor slavery as immoral and also openly rail over the likelihood of living with blacks. Clearly, advocating against black slavery was not incompatible with the prevailing notion of white supremacy. As a result, long after Michigan achieved statehood, laws were enforced, cases decided, and customs followed that denied blacks the basic rights of citizenship.

The Midwest region of the United States, which included Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, was regarded as second only to the South in its citizens' resolve to white supremacy and racial discrimination. (2) "To most mid-westerners, Negroes were biologically inferior persons to be shunned by all respectable whites...' Our people [of Indiana] hate the Negro with a perfect if not a supreme hatred.'" (3)

Every state in the Midwest enacted laws that disabled black residents and discouraged the emigration of others. Indiana (1850), Illinois (1853) and Iowa (1857) enacted stringent laws forbidding blacks from settling in their states. All seven Midwest states denied black suffrage and excluded them from military service. (4) As late as the 1850s, Indiana and Ohio adopted constitutions that denied the vote to blacks, and in Michigan (1850), Iowa (1857) and Wisconsin (1857) referenda seeking the franchise for blacks were resoundingly defeated. (5)

Interracial marriages were illegal in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio as well as Michigan. (6) The Michigan version of miscegenation law, which was not enacted until 1846, had an obviously telling juxtaposition of blacks with other "disabled" persons who were forbidden to marry: "No white person shall intermarry with a negro, and no insane person or idiot shall be capable of contracting marriage." (7) Michigan's prohibition against interracial marriages remained in effect until 1883 when a statutory amendment legalized white-African marriages and made legitimate the offspring of such unions. (8)

Although race legislation varied within the Midwestern states, it was not uncommon for blacks to be barred from military service, jury duty and from testifying against whites in court. Characteristically, they paid the taxes imposed on white citizens but their children were relegated to racially segregated, inferior public schools. (9)

Some of Michigan's post-statehood "black laws" were "reaffirmations" of territorial laws that the new constitution declared in force until altered or replaced. The Constitution of 1835 limited voting to "every white male citizen above the age of twenty-one years." (10) This disenfranchisement effectively excluded blacks from jury duty since only electors could serve." The territorial laws that limited militia service to whites continued in force after 1835. (12)

Among the most odious of the Territory's laws was the 1827 "Act to regulate Blacks and Mulattoes, and to Punish the Kidnapping of Such Persons." (13) The act was intended to exclude blacks and mulattoes from the Michigan Territory. (14) It required that they possess valid certificates of freedom or proofs of birth before they could reside or settle in the Michigan Territory and register such proofs with a county clerk. (15) In addition, blacks and mulattoes entering the Territory had to post a $500 bond, an enormous sum in 1827, as security for their good behavior and to insure they would not become public charges. …

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