SIU Department Name | Page Title

siu logo siupress logo

SIU logo


Main Content Area

Organizing Freedom

Organizing Freedom

Black Emancipation Activism in the Civil War Midwest

Add to Cart

Jennifer R. Harbour


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
208 pages, 6 x 9, 5 illustrations


Additional Materials

  • Table of Contents
  • News / Publicity

Table of Contents

Table of Contents



About the Book

Organizing Freedom is a riveting and significant social history of black emancipation activism in Indiana and Illinois during the Civil War era. By enlarging the definition of emancipation to include black activism, author Jennifer R. Harbour details the aggressive, tenacious defiance through which Midwestern African Americans—particularly black women—made freedom tangible for themselves.

Despite banning slavery, Illinois and Indiana share an antebellum history of severely restricting rights for free black people while protecting the rights of slaveholders. Nevertheless, as Harbour shows, black Americans settled there, and in a liminal space between legal slavery and true freedom, they focused on their main goals: creating institutions like churches, schools, and police watches; establishing citizenship rights; arguing against oppressive laws in public and in print; and, later, supporting their communities throughout the Civil War.
Harbour’s sophisticated gendered analysis features black women as being central to the seeking of emancipated freedom. Her distinct focus on what military service meant for the families of black Civil War soldiers elucidates how black women navigated life at home without a male breadwinner at the same time they began a new, public practice of emancipation activism. During the tumult of war, Midwestern black women negotiated relationships with local, state, and federal entities through the practices of philanthropy, mutual aid, religiosity, and refugee and soldier relief.

This story of free black people shows how the ideal of equality often competed against reality in an imperfect nation. As they worked through the sluggish, incremental process to achieve abolition and emancipation, Midwestern black activists created a unique regional identity.



Jennifer R. Harbour is an associate professor of Black Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha.


"Jennifer R. Harbour's Organizing Freedom provides a riveting account of the complex nature of Black emancipation activism in antebellum and wartime Illinois and Indiana. Harbour deals impressively with subjects few historians have examined in depth: early Black migration to the Midwest, Black organizational and community development beyond the Northeast, and Black women's activist and emancipation strategies within those regions."—Jazma Sutton, Middle West Review

"Jennifer R. Harbour provides us with a finely tuned multilayered exploration of black women's activism in the antebellum and Civil War eras."—Gayle T. TateCivil War Book Review 

"Harbour moves away from the traditional focus on white abolitionists and black men, telling this story through black newspapers, church records, letters to black publications and white political leaders, and to a lesser extent white-created documents. . . . Her emphasis on institutions and women--not simply as a supplement but by reconceptualizing black activity as fundamentally about families and communities overall--goes beyond the individualized 'great man' perspective that often dominates historical understandings, especially of war and politics." —David Brodnax Sr.The Annals of Iowa

“Jennifer R. Harbour deftly teases out everyday acts of bravery in the black communities of Illinois and Indiana in their pursuit of emancipation as a conscious, concerted, collective, and ongoing action. With vivid examples she reveals men, women, and children not only surviving in a threatening environment but also defining the terms of freedom as something greater than the absence of slavery. This is an important contribution to Underground Railroad, abolitionist, and Civil War studies.”—Leigh Fought, author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

“Harbour skillfully presents the struggle for emancipation in a new light, one that illuminates the activism of black men and women and their extraordinary effort to carve out communities and civic organizations in the midst of white supremacy.”—Stephen I. Rockenbach, author of War upon Our Border: Two Ohio Valley Communities Navigate the Civil War
“This pathbreaking study achieves several important goals by broadening our definition of ‘emancipation,’ redirecting our gaze westward, forcing us to consider the important role of women, and describing in detail the crucial role of black organizational activity in the antebellum Midwest.”—Beverly C. Tomek, author of Pennsylvania Hall: A “Legal Lynching” in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell