APRIL 2013 Inside research file
Studying the obstacles faced by abolitionists Dana Weiner researches slavery and prejudice in the early U.S. Northwest
As the United States continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (1861-1865), Dana Weiner has noticed an increased interest in the time period. Most notably, two of this year’s Oscarnominated films, Lincoln and Django Unchained, explore Civil War and slave narratives. “I have noticed that people want to talk more with historians following the release of these films, which is due in part to the huge amount of variation in terms of people’s awareness about the impact of slavery,” says Weiner, an assistant professor in Laurier’s History department. “One of the controversies about Django is the language. Sometimes people say, ‘Oh concerns with racialized language are just political correctness and we’re pandering to people by being overly concerned about offence,’ but it’s not that simple when you look at the historical weight that these kinds of words had and still have.” For Weiner, even though she has issues with both films, Lincoln and Django are useful for helping people understand that racism and slavery have resonance in the present. “It has been really fruitful in terms of starting a conversation about how slavery is relevant to all Americans’ lives,” she says. Weiner’s research into slavery and abolition has culminated in her new book, Race and Rights: Fighting Slavery and Prejudice in the Old Northwest, 1830-1870 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013). The book began as her master’s research about female abolitionists in Illinois. While at Northwestern University outside of Chicago, Weiner started looking at these women organizing against slavery at the grassroots level. She discovered they encountered much violent opposition, but they “played up gender protections.”
Dana Weiner’s new book.
Photo: Mallory O’Brien
By Mallory O’Brien
Dana Weiner says that research and spending time in the archives is one of the highlights of her job.
For example, if a male abolitionist speaker was being mobbed, women would surround him to protect him, assuming male rioters would not attack them because they were women. “It was quite bold, but in a lot of cases, it worked,” says Weiner. Her interests soon expanded into a broader PhD project, also at Northwestern, about antislavery and anti-prejudice activism in the American Midwest. During the mid-19th century, there was substantial fugitiveslave activity in Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri, which share borders with Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, and Michigan just north of those states. “A big tendency in the study of the antislavery movement is to look at the east coast of the United States as the centre of antislavery activism,” she says. “Partially because I was located in Illinois and I had already noticed so much anti-abolition violence historically, I was interested in what
happened around the area in those times, in those places that were close to slavery.” When Weiner came to Laurier in 2008, her research broadened into a study about human rights activism in that time period, and how race affected rights in “this very contentious place.” Weiner says people often think the free states were more
get away from slavery, but not necessarily because they opposed it. Determining what obstacles, specifically, abolitionists faced in the Midwest was one of her research challenges. In her book, Weiner addresses three main types of rights that anti-abolitionists restricted: freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Lovejoy started in Missouri, which was a slave state, and moved north to Illinois, which was a free state, but his neighbours in Illinois didn’t want him to print the paper either, so he ended up having three more presses destroyed. “Even when they only used passive resistance, abolitionists had trouble finding places they could speak,” says Weiner. “People would say, ‘We don’t want to hear your disruptive talk in our town. You can’t come and lecture here.’ There was a lot of tumult.” In addition to the challenges that white and black abolitionists faced, there is also another big piece about rights in her book: the presence of the “Black Laws” in these states. “The Black Laws are less wellknown than the segregation rules in the South after the Civil War,” says Weiner. “But those kinds of laws were actually already present in some northern places, including the Midwest, before the war.” For example, if you were a free African-American who was trying to move to Illinois, you couldn’t just cross the border and buy land. There was a long list of legal rights deprivations, including the inability to testify against a white person. “If a white person committed a crime against an African-American person, the latter would need to have a white ally who had seen what happened and was willing to testify.” Now that her book is out, Weiner is focusing her current project on Black Laws in early California. Mexico had much more permissive rights for African-Americans than the U.S. did, “So what happened to those people who were established citizens in California when the U.S. annexed the state? Did they retain their land and position in society?” Much of Weiner’s research involves sifting through archives to sort out how everything
“ Even with more passive resistance, abolitionists had trouble finding places they could speak. ”
accepting of African-Americans or religious minorities, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. “It’s not as if people became blank slates when they crossed these borders,” she says. “People were coming to the Midwest with particular views: whether or not they thought slavery was an acceptable institution, and whether or not they wanted African-American neighbours.” Weiner notes that many people moved to the Midwest to
One of the most notorious cases of an attack on rights in Illinois was that of Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper editor who was murdered during a riot in the mid-1830s. Lovejoy went through multiple presses while publishing antislavery newspapers because anti-abolitionists repeatedly destroyed them. “The Old Northwest hosted overt attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” says Weiner.
actually worked “on the ground.” “We know these Black Laws existed and there was activism against them, but to what degree did authorities enforce these laws? Did people find ways to get around them? I am looking for insights on questions like these in the archives. “Sometimes you find great stuff that isn’t necessarily exactly what you were looking for, and I love that. The research is one of the high points of this job.” 7