How To Explain the Myth of the Free North to Children

In history class, most kids learn about the Civil War in terms of the free North and the slaveholding South, but there is far more to the reality of what America looked like for Black people during the war and in the decades that followed. It's time we teach that truth.

Rear view of class raising hands with statue of Abraham Lincoln in background
Photo: Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (2)

When we talk with our children about the Civil War it's tempting to tell them the myth of the free North. It is an explanation for the war that goes like this:

The North was a place where Black people could live freely, without fear of masters or whips. However, the South loved slavery. As a result, President Abraham Lincoln started the war to free the slaves. The Northern states fought for four years and defeated the South. That is why slavery has ended. North good, South bad.

This narrative is simple and digestible. It is the narrative that has been, for the most part, repeated in our school systems and to each other to understand a complex war with many players. However, this myth ultimately does children a great disservice because it ignores something important: the North was not free.

As parents think about how to explain the history of racism in the United States, it is imperative that they dispel the idea that the North was a free haven for Black Americans by discussing how anti-Blackness is not an exclusively Southern trait. For this lesson, we need to talk about states like Illinois.

The Free but Unequal North

Illinois was the state of Abraham Lincoln. It was also one of the most difficult places for Black people to live. Slavery had come to the Illinois territory with French colonists. In 1818, Illinois became part of the United States as a free state. As you can imagine, asking people to change their ways and free their slaves was not welcomed by slave owners.

"There already was the presence of slavery happening in the Illinois territory. So what happens then? Does the law automatically make things change?" asks Caroline Kisiel, Ph.D, an associate professor at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at DePaul University. The answer, she says, is no. Dr. Kisiel researches and writes about the presence of slavery in Illinois during the early years of statehood. She notes that the state constitution "allowed slavery in certain forms." For example, Dr. Kisiel says that slave owners were permitted to continue using slaves in salt mines and indentured servants were required to fulfill their sentence to their masters. Dr. Kisiel also notes that these special forms of slavery continued years after Illinois entered the union as a free state. This continuation is important.

Illinois was a place of Black bondage and it took a long time for attitudes to shift toward anti-slavery sentiment and equal rights did not happen overnight. It was a slow process with slave owners fighting to maintain their free labor. As Dr. Kisiel summarized, "We often focus on the word 'slavery' versus the word 'institution,'" she says. "If it's an institution, it is embedded in a society in a way that people think, act, make choices, live their lives." The institution of slavery had been strongly connected to Illinois culture and society that even in declaring itself free, it could not completely let go of the chains that held Black people. Slavery remained a close, sweet memory for the white people of Illinois, so much that they created laws to establish controls on Black Illinoisans.

Racism is not a Southern phenomenon, but a national emergency.

As observed in Tara McClellan McAndrew's piece for NPR Illinois, Illinois Issues: Slave State, these laws severely restricted Black Illinoisans from living free lives. For example, the laws capped time non-resident Black people could be in the state to 10 days and prevented large gatherings. Finally, as McAndrew remarks, "to perpetuate their enslavement, Blacks couldn't vote or testify in court." This was not freedom—it was second-class citizenry. Black Illinoisans were at the mercy of white residents who actively denied them the right to vote, freely move through the state, or fellowship with each other. These laws set the foundation for a culture that disregarded Black lives.

Illinois history is filled with violence and discrimination toward Black communities; from the murders of Sam Bush, Scott Burton, and William Donegan to the violent massacres in East St. Louis, Chicago, and Springfield. Historically, Black Illinoisans lived in fear of violence and retaliation from their white counterparts.

Illinois is not special in this regard. It was like the other states that fought against the South: slavery was not legal but Black people were not equal. Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio also had similar anti-Black laws. Violence against Black Northerners was part of their lived experience. In 1863, white New Yorkers attacked Black residents in retaliation for a new draft law. While the experiences of Black Northerners were not monolithic, it is imperative to understand that discrimination and unfair laws did not end at the Mason-Dixon line.

How We Talk to Children About the Myth

When adults talk to children about the Civil War and American history, it is critical that we explain how slavery and systemic oppression was tolerated in Northern states. While it may be tempting to use the myth of the free North, this sets your child up for failure. It ensures they grow up with a biased and limited understanding of American history.

The current conversations we are having about race will not disappear but grow in the coming years. It is imperative that parents have open dialogues about race and how all states have systematically discriminated against Black Americans. This will give children the context to understand why people are upset and how racism is not a Southern phenomenon, but a national emergency.

How do you specifically derail the myth of the North? You address it. Every time the Civil War or racism comes up in conversation, make sure that your examples of Black suffering and oppression are not limited to slavery. Make sure you talk about Jim Crow laws in New York City and Minneapolis, segregated school bussing in Boston, racial bans of homeownership on Long Island, New York, a ban on Black people in Oregon, and their forced eviction from Malaga Island, Maine. If you live in a Northern state, encourage your school districts to use a curriculum that discusses your community's historical treatment of Black people. And if you live in the South, tell your children how although Black people fled your state, they were not treated equally when they reached the North.

Adults have many responsibilities to children, but one of the most crucial is raising them to be well-informed members of society. If we continue to use the myth of the good North in our homes and schools, we are failing them and telling a story that ignores the experiences of being Black in America.

Lesson Plans and Resources for Parents and Teachers

Lesson plan for grades 6-8: "Separate but Never Equal": Introducing the History of Segregation, Scholastic

Lesson plan for grades 6-8: Living Under the Illinois Black Codes, Chicago Historical Society

Lesson plan for grades 9-12: Recognizing and Combating Segregation in U.S. Schools Today, PBS Beyond Brown

Additional reading: "The Jim Crow North," The New York Times Upfront

Nikki Brueggeman is a writer and historian based in California. Her writing focuses on Black history, and she has been published in Yes! Magazine, The Crisis Magazine, and Byrdie. She can be followed on Twitter at @warriornikki.

Read more on how to talk to your kids about Black history in's Anti-Racist Curriculum, here.

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