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Historian: Northern Free Blacks 'Spearheaded' Lead Up to Civil War

As we mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, we've heard a lot about the battles, the heroes, the death tolls.

But what we don't hear often enough is about the people who had the biggest stake in the war's outcome: African-Americans - both slaves and free persons.

University of Wisconsin historian Steve Kantrowitz argues that we often overlook the role of Northern free blacks in the lead up to the civil war. 

Though there were only about 250,000 free blacks in the North before the war, a small number compared with the country's almost 4 million slaves, Kantrowitz says they had an outsized impact in advocating against slavery and pushing the issue to the front of the national conscience. 

"The anti-slavery movement itself to shelter fugitives, the movement to pass laws to protect fugitives from return to slavery - all those things are spearheaded by free Black activists in the North," he says. "And only after that, taken up as causes by white people as well."

Kantrowitz will give a lecture on "Black Northerners and the Meaning of the Civil War" Wednesday evening as part of Beloit College's “History of the Civil War” lecture series. He's also the author of the book, More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889.

The next lecture in the series is on Sept. 25th.