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Salafia to present colloquium on Northwest Ordinance

Published: 20 January 2011

The history, philosophy and religious studies department’s January colloquium will feature Matthew Salafia’s “And then the War Came … Right?: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River” on Jan. 28 at 3 p.m. in the Memorial Union Room of Nations.

Salafia will discuss some of the history and ramifications of the Northwest Ordinance which made the Ohio River the dividing line between slavery and freedom in America. He argues that when the Civil War divided the country in two in 1861, the region failed to split at this seam for two reasons. First, the movement encouraged by the river border informed local residents’ understanding of the region and their place in it. The Ohio River’s current propelled people through the region, while the border pushed them across the boundary between slavery and freedom. White residents on both sides of the river came to believe the Ohio River naturally whitened the region by virtue of the sale of enslaved blacks to the Deep South and the escape of enslaved African Americans to Canada.

Second, along the banks of the Ohio River, wage labor and chattel slavery became points on a capitalist continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories for African Americans. The Ohio River economy both linked borderland slavery with borderland free labor, and limited the extent of slaveholding along the border. As a result, white Kentuckians and antislavery northerners clung to the idea that slavery was in gradual decline and somehow milder in Kentucky than further south. When the Civil War erupted, the majority of residents remained firmly committed to maintaining the river border because they hoped it put the region on a course toward gradual emancipation. By 1861, residents viewed the Ohio River as a political border, but at this river’s banks, slavery and freedom met, but did not clash.

Salafia earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame, and lectures for NDSU’s history, philosophy and religious studies department. His monograph, “Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage Along the Ohio River, 1787-1865,” is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Questions about the colloquium may be directed to Dennis Cooley at 1-7038 or


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