As a scholar of 19th-century U.S. history, Anna-Lisa Cox ’94 isn’t accustomed to being in the spotlight. With the forthcoming publication of her book The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality, however, she’s found herself the subject of numerous media interviews, recipient of multiple invitations to discuss her work and soon to begin a month-long book tour starting on the East Coast with a June 11 preview in Holland. Amazon named The Bone and Sinew of the Land a June Best Book of the Month in history, and well-known scholar Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University has described it as “a revelation of primary historical research that is written with the beauty and empathic powers of a novel.”
It’s all an adjustment, but she’s glad for the interest in her topic and the opportunity it presents to share a rich history long lost.
“I am a little stunned by the advance interest in my book,” said Anna-Lisa, who is a nonresident fellow with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, “but I am relieved that the response has been warm.”
Focusing on the Northwest Territory (modern Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin) between 1800 and 1860, Anna-Lisa found that African Americans played a larger role in settling the frontier than previously believed. She identified more than 300 African American farming settlements that were home to land-owning farming families in the region, before the Civil War. There were tens of thousands of these free African American pioneers who came to settle this early American frontier in what was the nation’s first Great Migration.
“Loren Schweninger points out in Black Property Owners in the South, by the mid-1800s a farmer with property worth between $2,000 and $5,000 was in the top 13 percent of wealthy landowners in the United States at that time, regardless of skin color,” she said. “Many of these settlements included farmers with such wealth, and some were even wealthier.”
“It is amazing how these histories have been lost, but there is a lot of richness in the past for us still to learn,” she said. “From a local history perspective, Ottawa County had some very early African American settlers before the Civil War, including a successful blacksmith.”
Anna-Lisa, who is currently based in Michigan, has been conducting research on race relations in the 19th-century Midwest for several years. Her award-winning publications also include the 2007 book A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith (Little, Brown), which tells the history of the southwest Michigan community of Covert, which became integrated in the 1860s. She has also recently helped create two historical exhibits based on her original research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, including one on black pioneers. She was back at Hope this past spring semester as a visiting faculty member, teaching a course on Michigan history.
She explains that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided the impetus for thousands of African Americans to relocate to the wilderness lands in what she describes as the nation’s first Great Migration. It forbade slavery in the region, and offered equal voting rights to men regardless of their skin color. With the territory largely unsettled, it also meant that the African American pioneers could build new lives away from racial prejudice.
As the decades passed, Anna-Lisa noted, the opportunities for African Americans declined as the region became more heavily settled and they found themselves facing familiar biases as the frontier receded. As the publisher’s description of the book explains, “Though forgotten today, in their own time the success of these pioneers made them the targets of racist backlash. Political and even armed battles soon ensued, tearing apart families and communities.”
With the U.S. of the present day continuing to wrestle with <<equality>>, she feels that remembering is essential.
“The Northwest Frontier was the largest piece of land set aside as free from slavery in the New World,” she said. “This was a truly revolutionary frontier. What’s been lost is not only this first Great Migration, but all the settlements that were part of it.”
“These African American pioneers who came out to settle the frontier long before the Civil War are an integral part of our American past, but their history has been buried for far too long,” she said. “If we lose who helped settle the frontier, who was essential in these states’ histories, we lose a sense of who belongs.”
The book-tour events will provide multiple opportunities to learn more or to connect with Anna-Lisa. They include:
Monday, June 11: Maple Avenue Ministries, Holland, Michigan, 427 Maple Ave., 7 p.m.
Tuesday, June 19: Harvard Book Store, co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center; Boston, Massachusetts
Thursday, June 21: Politics & Prose; Washington, D.C.
Friday, June 22: Solid State Books; Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, June 26: Seminary Co-op; Chicago, Illinois
Wednesday, June 27: Anderson’s Bookshop; Naperville, Illinois
Sunday July 8, 2 p.m.: Allen County Public Library; Fort Wayne, Indiana
Monday, July 9: Literati Bookstore; Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tuesday, July 10: Pages Bookstore; Detroit, Michigan
Tuesday, July 24: Wisconsin Historical Society; Madison, Wisconsin
In addition, more about the book is available online at https://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/anna-lisa-cox/the-bone-and-sinew-of-the-land/9781610398114/ or https://www.amazon.com/Bone-Sinew-Land-Americas-Forgotten/dp/1610398106 .