March 7th, 1842
Maryland Criminalizes Possession of Anti-Slavery Publications
Black resistance to slavery was active and high profile between 1820 and 1839; during this period, Denmark Vesey’s slave revolt was planned and uncovered in South Carolina; Nat Turner’s sixty-person slave revolt was staged in Virginia; the Underground Railroad began operations that would ultimately help more than 75,000 enslaved black escape bondage; and the Amistad slave ship was taken over by the kidnapped Africans onboard. While these events encouraged critical conversations about the inhumanity of slavery and the need for abolition, they also moved lawmakers and other officials in pro-slavery jurisdictions to work harder to suppress abolitionist sentiment.
On March 7, 1842, Maryland’s General Assembly demonstrated a commitment to maintaining slavery and quelling rebellions when it enacted a law prohibiting free “Negroes” and “mulattoes” from possessing any fliers, pamphlets, newspapers, pictorial representations, “or other papers of an inflammatory character.” The law also forbid the receipt of these items through any post office within the state of Maryland. Violation of the law would be a felony, and those declared guilty would face up to twenty years in prison.
To enforce the law, Maryland residents were asked to alert authorities in their respective communities about African Americans that were in possession of the banned abolitionist materials. Citizens of Maryland who failed to report these violations faced a fine of no less than $500 or no less than sixty days imprisonment in a county jail. County courts and the city of Baltimore’s courts were tasked with informing grand juries of the law and charging them with enforcing it when court was in session.
June 26th, 1844
Oregon Territory Bans Free Black People
On June 26, 1844, the legislative committee of the territory then known as “Oregon Country” passed the first of a series of “black exclusion” laws. The law dictated that free African Americans were prohibited from moving into Oregon Country and those who violated the ban could be whipped “not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes."
On December 19, 1844, the law was amended to substitute forced labor for whipping. It specified that African Americans who stayed within Oregon would be hired at public auction; the “hirer” would be responsible for removing the “hiree” out of the territory after the prescribed period of forced service was rendered. This law was enforced even though slavery and involuntary servitude were illegal in Oregon Country.
The preamble to a later exclusion law, passed in 1849, explained legislators’ beliefs that “it would be highly dangerous to allow free Negroes and mulattoes to reside in the Territory, or to intermix with Indians, instilling . . . feelings of hostility toward the white race.”
The Oregon Constitution of 1857 included racial exclusion provisions against African Americans and Asian Americans. It barred African Americans outside of Oregon to “come, reside, or be within” the state; prohibited African Americans from owning property or performing contracts; and prescribed punishment for those who employed, “harbor[ed]”, or otherwise helped African Americans.
Between 1840 and 1860, in the midst of this exclusion and discrimination, African Americans never constituted more than 1 percent of the population in the American Pacific Northwest.
February 4th, 1846
Alabama Begins Statewide Convict Leasing
The Alabama state legislature voted to construct the first state-run prison on January 26, 1839. In 1841, the Wetumpka State Penitentiary was built in Wetumpka, Alabama. The prison received its first inmate in 1842: a white man sentenced to 20 years for harboring a runaway slave. In the antebellum penitentiary, 99 percent of inmates were white, as free black people were not legally permitted to live in the state, and enslaved black people were instead subject to unregulated “plantation justice” at the hands of slaveowners and overseers.
The penitentiary was supposed to be self-sufficient, but soon proved costly as the prison industries of manufacturing wagons, buggies, saddles, harnesses, shoes, and rope failed to generate enough funds to maintain the facility. On February 4, 1846, the state legislature chose to lease the penitentiary to J.G. Graham, a private businessman, for a six-year term. Graham appointed himself warden and took control of the entire prison and its inmates, claiming all profits made from inmate labor and eliminating every other employment position except physician and inspector. Alabama continued to lease the prison to private businessmen until 1862, when warden/leaser Dr. Ambrose Burrows was murdered by an inmate.
This initial leasing of the prison and its inmates marked the beginning of the convict leasing system in Alabama, and that system was soon renewed. In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the government again authorized inmates to be leased to work outside of the prison, and 374 prisoners were leased to the firm Smith & McMillen to work rebuilding the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad. In this post-Emancipation society, black people were no longer enslaved, and the convict population that was formerly almost all white was now 90 percent black. The system of convict leasing became one that forced primarily black prisoners – some convicted of minor or trumped up charges – to work in hard, dangerous, conditions for no pay. This practice continued until World War II.
February 16th, 1847
Missouri Prohibits Black Education
On February 16, 1847, the legislature of Missouri passed an act that prohibited “Negroes and mulattoes” from learning to read and write and assembling freely for worship services. The act also forbade the migration of free blacks to the state. The penalty for anyone violating any of the law’s provisions was a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars, a jail term not to exceed six months, or a combination of fine and jail sentence.
The 1847 law supplemented a Missouri law passed in 1825 that imposed various restrictions on free black people. The 1825 law defined a black person as anyone having at least one black grandparent, and made a distinction between those considered full-blooded Negroes and mixed-blooded mulattoes. The 1825 law also prohibited free blacks from keeping or carrying weapons without a special permit and settling in Missouri without a certificate of citizenship from Missouri or another state. Free blacks who migrated to or through Missouri without citizenship documents faced arrest, a court order to leave the state within thirty days, and a punishment of ten lashes. Under the 1825 law, white ship captains and labor bosses were permitted to bring free blacks into the state as workers, though for no longer than six months at a time.
In 1840, nearly 13 percent of Missouri’s population was composed of enslaved black people, while free black people made up less than one percent of the state’s residents. The 1847 law was enacted to place further limitations on the black population and calm fears of a possible rebellion.
April 16th, 1848
Enslaved Africans Try to Escape Washington, D.C., Aboard Ship
In mid-nineteenth century Washington, D.C., slavery was legal, pervasive, and a source of significant and growing tension. Abolitionists maintained a forceful presence in business and politics throughout the city and enslaved people escaping bondage in the nation's capital often fled to Pennsylvania, a free state only eighty miles away.
In 1848, two white abolitionists, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, decided to charter a sixty-four-foot cargo ship nicknamed the Pearl to help enslaved people in the Washington area escape to Pennsylvania. On Saturday, April 15, at least seventy-five enslaved adults and children from Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown boarded the Pearl and embarked upriver. Saturday was a traditional day of rest for enslaved people and the abolitionists reasoned the escape would not be detected for at least a day.
The plan seemed destined for success until the wind unexpectedly changed direction at the mouth of the Potomac River, forcing the group to anchor and wait for better weather. By Monday, white slave-holding families in the city had been alerted to the escape. Thirty armed men promptly boarded a steamboat and chased down and captured the Pearl while it was still at rest. Mr. Drayton and Mr. Sayres were imprisoned until they were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore in 1852. The escapees were re-enslaved and many were sold to cotton and sugar plantations in the southwest. The escape attempt sparked three days of riots in Washington, as pro-slavery rioters attacked local abolitionists.
December 4th, 1849
Massachusetts Supreme Court Upholds Segregated Schools
The Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery illegal in 1783, a decision which ushered in the notion of equality across the state. In Boston, African American parents were eager to send their children to school for a quality education, but African American children attending white schools in the city faced significant harassment from whites who disapproved. Boston’s African American parents began petitioning for segregated schools as a protective measure and a private school for black students was established in 1798.
By 1840, there was concern that Boston’s segregated schools fostered prejudice and disparity; African American schools were underfunded and when black students sought admission to white schools they were denied. Moreover, African Americans were required to pay taxes for schools open only to white youth. Fed up, African American families enlisted the legal representation of future United States Senator Charles Sumner and African American activist Robert Morris to spearhead a case challenging school segregation in the state. The main plaintiff was Benjamin Roberts, who sued on behalf of his five-year-old daughter Sarah Roberts. The case was Roberts v. City of Boston.
When Sarah turned five, her father sought to enroll her in the school nearest their home but Sarah’s application was rejected because she was black. Mr. Roberts attempted to send Sarah to the school anyway, but she was sent home. School leaders argued that Sarah could not attend white schools and had to choose one of two city schools established solely for African Americans. The Roberts sued and, on December 4, 1849, their lawyers argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Court that segregation was an unlawful basis for exclusion from a public school.
In 1850, the Massachusetts Supreme Court disagreed and held that segregated schools did not violate the law as long as a school for “colored” students was maintained. This ruling authorizing segregated schools in Massachusetts was overturned five years later when the state legislature banned discrimination in public school admissions.