“Black Friday”: Enforcing Ohio’s “Black Laws” in Portsmouth, Ohio
On Friday, January 21st, 1831, the following notice appeared in the city’s paper: “The citizens of Portsmouth are adopting measures to free the town of its colored population. We saw a paper, yesterday, with between one and two hundred names, including most of the house-holders, in which they pledged themselves not to employ any of them who have not complied with the law. The authorities have requested us to give notice that they will hereafter enforce the law indiscriminately.”
Complying with the request of city officials, Elijah Glover, the editor of the Portsmouth Courier, dutifully placed this notice prominently in the columns of his newspaper. According to the oldest historical accounts of the controversy, eighty African American residents of the city were expelled under the threat of enforcement of Ohio "Black Laws."
Among other discriminatory requirements, the "Black Laws" stipulated that all African-American residents were to register with their county clerk, proving their free status. In Portsmouth, that meant that African Americans were to visit the Scioto County Court House, which was originally located in middle of Market Street, between Front and Second Streets.
Runaway slaves who decided for various reasons to make a go at it here -- rather than seek greater security and freedom in Canada -- as well as those who may have been born free but did not have proper papers, made Portsmouth their home, often finding employment on the margins of society, scrapping by in the shadows of the law. Few however, it appears, ever registered.
Nelson Evans, the author of A History of Scioto County, Ohio (1902), provided the now memorable name for the event -- "Black Friday" -- recording the first historical account of this dark chapter in local and American history, under the heading of “Relics of Barbarism.” Evans account reads: ”A Black Friday. On January 21, 1830, all the colored people in Portsmouth were forcibly deported from the town. They were not only warned out, but they were driven out. They were forced to leave their homes and belongings. Between one hundred and two hundred householders had signed a paper to the effect that they would not employ any black person who had not complied with the law. The town authorities had been worked up to the point of agreeing to enforce the savage and brutal ‘Black Laws’ of Ohio."
Evans noted that "the law referred to had been passed January 19, 1804 (Chase, Volume 1, 393). It forbade any black or mulatto person to reside in the State unless they had a certificate from the Clerk of the Court that they were free. Any one was forbidden to hire or employ any black or mulatto person without such certificate, under penalty of $10 to $50, one-half of which went to the informer and other half to the State. Under the law of January 25, 1807 (Chase, Volume 1, 556), no black or mulatto person was allowed to settle in the State without giving bond in $500 for good behavior and against becoming a township charge. If such bond was not given, it was the duty of the Overseer of the Poor, of the respective townships to drive them out. The harboring, employing or concealing of a Negro who had not given such a bond was $100 penalty, one-half to the informer and one half to the great State of Ohio. The same law forbade a Negro to be a witness against a white person."
Evans was notably outraged by the event, writing, “Just think of it! There were over one hundred men in Portsmouth, in 1830, who determined to enforce these laws, and who did enforce them, and then attended the great Fourth of July celebration on July 4, 1831, listened to all the crimes imputed to poor, old, silly, crazy George III, and then thanked God they had never done anything as bad as that, when they had on the previous January 21, 1830, done much worse. The editor [Nelson Evans] does not know the names of the one hundred or two hundred householders in Portsmouth who signed that infamous paper, and hopes he may never know, and that the paper is destroyed. It was not published in the newspapers of that time. As near as we can now determine, eighty black people were deported by the town authorities in 1830 [sic].”
Whatever errors may have crept into Nelson Evan’s account, we can say with confidence that the expulsion notice appeared on a Friday in the year 1831, not 1830 as initiatially claimed by Evans, but beyond that without other documentation we must trust his claims that eighty African Americans -- “all the colored people in Portsmouth” -- were expelled under threat of enforcing Ohio’s discriminatory “Black Laws.”
Working off of Evans’ account, Carter G. Woodson, the father of "Black History Month," probably did more than any historian in popularizing the story of Portsmouth's Black Friday. Woodson included the story in three of his books, A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War (1915), A Century of Negro Migration (1918), and The Negro in Our History (1922). Woodson concluded that “despite the 'Black Friday' upheaval of 1831, the Negroes settled down to the solution of the problems of their new environment and later showed in the accumulation of property evidences of actual progress.”
“Black Friday” of 1831, it turns out, was actually the second recorded expulsion of African-Americans from Portsmouth. The earlier expulsion having been lost to time, overlooked by Evans, is to be found in the records of Wayne Township, where Portsmouth was located at the time. Here, one finds the story of the “first negro exodus” in the minutes of the Township Trustees.
At their meeting on the 2nd of March 1818, the Trustees authorized a special payment to Warren Johnson, the township’s constable. The treasurer was ordered to pay him “$4.18 for the fees in warning out blacks and mulatto persons of the township….” At the time, enforcement of the “Black Laws” fell to the local police force, the township constable.
Portsmouth’s history of expulsions was not an isolated incident in the history of the region; the majority of its white residents were no more racist and heartless than those living in other Ohio River cities. Enforcement of Ohio’s Black Laws appear to have been generally episodic and arbitrary, lightly enforced on the whole, but occasionally used to threaten and intimidate black residents of the state.
The most notorious purge occurred not in Portsmout, but in Cincinnati, in August 1829. There, as in Portsmouth, Cincinnati officials announced that on a certain date they would begin to enforce the “Black Laws.” What followed was a race riot, the destruction of many homes in the black section of the city, and the forced exodus of nearly half of the city’s black population, some of which migrated to Canada.
The expulsions in Portsmouth, however, contributed to the establishment of a black community in Huston Hollow, which proved to be a critical link in the secret and illegal network of area residents, white and black, who helped the runaway slave reach freedom in Canada and other black commuities to the North.
“The citizens of Portsmouth are adopting measures to free the town of its colored population,” Portsmouth Courier (21 January 1831), Ohio History Center, Vault Newspaper Hardcopy, PORTSMOUTH N287, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
“Early History of Wayne Township. Number Five” Portsmouth Times (5 July 1879).
“J. J. Minor account of abolitionist activities, Portsmouth, Ohio, Sept. 1894,” Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio History Connection.
Nelson W. Evans, "A Black Friday" in A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902), p. 613.
Rebecca D. Jenkins, “Forgotten: Scioto County’s Lost Black History” (Bowling Green State University, MA Thesis, 2015).
Nikki Marie Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Ohio University Press, 2005).
Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2005).
Carter G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 − A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915).
Carter G. Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration (Washington, D.C., 1918).
Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History (Washington, D.C., 1922).