The Midwest has Always Been a Site of Black Political ActivismRoundup
tags: African American history, Midwestern history, Protest, Great Migration
Ashley Howard is a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa. She is currently completing a manuscript which analyzes the 1960s urban rebellions in the Midwest, grounded in the way race, class, gender and region influence resistance.
All eyes are on the Upper Midwest, where young people are marching in protest after the police killing of Daunte Wright, 20, just miles from the trial of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd last May.
That the Midwest has emerged as a key site of both racist policing and anti-racist activism may be surprising for Americans who imagine the region as White. The Midwest underwrites core American populist beliefs, asserting who is and who isn’t a part of the polity. Yet more than 7 million people who identify as Black reside in the Midwest, more than any other region except for the South. Taking seriously the presence and experiences of Black people and other people of color disrupts the bootstrapper ideology that anchors the region and shows the lie of the Midwest being deeply committed to egalitarianism and meritocracy.
Young Black activists are now taking a historical legacy of resistance and pushing for transformational change in the heartland.
When the Midwest is imagined as White, its cities with huge Black populations such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis are surgically removed to evoke a time and a place that has actually never existed, and wherein midsize cities such as Peoria and Des Moines have no Black residents to speak of. But the region was always home to African Americans — and they persistently agitated in an attempt to shake off the yoke of second-class citizenship.
This activism emerged even before Black Americans made up a significant proportion of the population in the Midwest.
In 1829, when Ohio passed racially exclusionary laws and a wave of anti-Black mob violence forced thousands of Black residents to leave the state, activists organized the nation’s first colored convention to protest. Over the next seven decades, national conventions strategized around the issues of suffrage, labor and emigration. Statewide conventions in the Midwest focused on the particularities of regional racism, being barred from voting and militia service, a lack of public schools for Black children and the inability to testify against White people in court. With the exception of the Dakotas, every Midwestern state held at least one such convention.
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