The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality

Anna-Lisa Cox. PublicAffairs, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61039-810-7
In this engrossing narrative, historian Cox (A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith) restores attention to the role of African-Americans in shaping both the frontier and early- to mid-19th-century American political life. Tracing the paths of black settlers to the Northwest Territory—what became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—Cox demonstrates how the growth of African-American populations in western cities and farmlands forced national questions about equality, citizenship, and the future of slavery. The frontier was a contested zone: although the territory was ostensibly slavery-free and granted voting rights to black male property holders, loopholes allowed pro-slavery Americans to ignore the law in pursuit of wealth and political power. Yet despite facing enormous prejudice, black pioneers fought for their rights and grew businesses, founded schools, built churches, and reorganized politics. Cox anchors her historical claims with portraits of black families living in settings ranging from rural Indiana to Detroit. Although her efforts to imagine settlers’ emotions and everyday lives, based more on speculation than archival evidence, may not be up to snuff for historians, they’ll enchant general readers. Cox’s book tells a story worth recovering, and it will interest anyone wanting to learn more about the lives of free black Americans before the Civil War. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/09/2018
Release date: 06/12/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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