Early French traders and
settlers brought slavery to the Illinois country before statehood, as
did immigrants from southern states. This fact made Illinois' social contours,
laws, and politics more complex than those of the other states of the
In the years in which Native
Americans, Frenchmen, African-Americans and a few British and white Americans
mingled in the Illinois backcountry's freewheeling society, blacks
enjoyed considerable freedoms, including the rights to bear arms, buy
and sell, and make contracts. While French masters held a significant
number of slaves, free blacks thrived as trappers, traders, and explorers.
In 1790 Jean Baptiste du Sable, a black man, opened a trading post at
the mouth of the Chicago River, becoming the first non-Indian settler
on the site of modern-day Chicago, Illinois.
The arrival of large numbers
of white American settlers, who pushed the French and British out of Illinois
and integrated the region into the United States, dramatically changed
racial customs and laws in Illinois. While the United States ostensibly
brought a democratic ethos to the Illinois country and brought an end
to French slavery, Americans' customs and values significantly undermined
the social fluidity of frontier society and especially damaged
the position of free blacks.
The legacy of slavery loomed
large in the founding of the State of Illinois. In 1818 the majority of
the state's white population hailed from the American South, and a significant
number of them held slaves. But the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which
had chartered Illinois as a part of the Northwest Territory (along with
Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin), explicitly forbade slavery.
A delicate compromise effected
in the state's early days protected the holding of black indentured servants,
who technically labored under some variety of contract in virtual slavery.
Although an 1824 referendum officially banned slavery in Illinois, many
of these indentured servants continued to toil in obscurity for years.
Illinois' free blacks lived
their lives between the institution of slavery, which thrived in nearby
Missouri and Kentucky, and many northern whites' hopes for an all-white
society. Southern slave-catchers, ostensibly in search of runaways, often
kidnapped free blacks into bondage. In 1830 residents of the Illinois
capital of Vandalia founded a colonization society devoted to returning
black Americans to Africa. Many such societies sprang up around Illinois
and the North, and the young Abraham Lincoln endorsed the plan.
Illinois law severely restricted
African-Americans' rights and liberties. An act of the first state legislature
obliged all African-Americans settling in the state to produce a certificate
of freedom. Blacks found without certificates were to be advertised in
newspapers and hired out for a year. Free blacks could not testify against
whites in court. Any person bringing slaves to Illinois in order to emancipate
them faced the challenge of producing a bond of one thousand dollars for
each, presumably to be forfeited at the discretion of a judge.
Despite these impediments,
free blacks often found ways to make their mark in early Illinois. William
Cooper, a free black man, settled in Cass County, Illinois in 1821. In
1826 he claimed public land and purchased it. His white neighbors, mostly
of southern descent, seemed to accept Cooper and his white wife, who attended
local Methodist services. Historians have speculated that Cooper possessed
some rare skill or practiced an important trade that made him indispensable
to his neighbors. In any event, circumstances such as Cooper's were exceedingly
In 1819 "Free Frank"
McWhorter purchased his freedom from his Kentucky master and moved, with
his wife (whose freedom he had also purchased), to Pike County, Illinois.
In the following years Free Frank and his sons purchased a considerable
tract of land and laid out New Philadelphia, a biracial town. The town
remained small, but thrived in the remote Pike County.
African-American women labored
under difficult circumstances as well. Despite white Americans' poor treatment,
most free black communities took on whites' gender roles. These customs
placed great emphasis upon masculine independence and made it a symbol
of freedom. Black women thus found themselves doubly burdened, by their
race and their sex.
Nevertheless, an important
group of African-American women became leaders in the abolitionist movement.
In the northeast states, the writers Maria W. Stewart and Mary Ann Shadd Cary
published important pamphlets and tracts. Sojourner Truth made herself
into an inspirational spokeswoman in the fight against slavery, and Harriet
Tubman donned bold disguises as she traveled south to lead slaves to freedom
on the Underground Railroad. In Illinois, the Chicagoan Emma Jane Atkinson
and other African-American women collaborated with white activists to
smuggle slaves to freedom as well.
Free black activists pulled
together to found new organizations, such as the State Convention of Colored
Citizens of the State of Illinois that met in Alton in November of 1856.
Often these groups worked with white abolitionists in the fight against
slavery, but many white antislavery activists themselves discriminated
against African-Americans, and especially black women. While the Massachusetts
editor and radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison welcomed women
and African-Americans' contributions to the movement, his influence did
not reach as far west as Illinois.
In addition to southern slavery,
northern Black Codes (or discriminatory laws), and a federal government
seemingly bent upon the extension of slavery, free blacks faced the discouraging
prospect of white American culture's virulent racial stereotypes. As Stephen
Douglas showed in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, most white Illinoisans
did not consider free blacks to be their political or social equals. Douglas,
like the Supreme Court of the United States, did not believe that African-Americans
could ever be citizens.
American popular culture
held African-Americans up to bitter ridicule as well. Cartoons published
in the mid-nineteenth century's new magazines repeatedly lampooned blacks'
supposed physical characteristics in crude outlines. American popular
song, which took shape on the stage of touring minstrel shows and in popular
songbooks aimed at the sing-along audience, revealed white Americans' fascination
with black music.
Minstrel shows purported
to bring southern blacks, "straight from the plantation," to
the North to perform their exotic rhythms and melodies. These shows in
fact usually reflected northern songwriters' vague impressions of life
on a southern plantation, and thus brought stereotypes to a wide audience.
Minstrel actors often played upon African-American stereotypes in broad
brushstrokes in order to wring a chuckle from white northern audiences
who had never met a black person in their life. Songbooks, widely popular
in an era before mass media entertainments, also labored to present "authentic"
African melodies, but usually flowed from the pens of northern song smiths.
Despite these considerable handicaps, African-Americans became the most significant
Americans by the 1850s. The white American political system that had so
effectively marginalized them found itself quite unable to resolve the
question of blacks' political, social, and economic standing. The result was Civil War.
In the face of abolitionist
pressure and the organization of the new Republican Party, President James
Buchanan and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney moved to resolve
the questions of race and slavery in America in the years before the Civil
War. Buchanan, a northern Democrat, cast his lot with pro-slavery southerners
who vociferously demanded control of federal slavery policy. Abandoning
such allies as Illinois' Stephen Douglas, Buchanan accepted a pro-slavery
constitution for the new state of Kansas, despite clear evidence of intimidation,
violence and electoral irregularities by pro-slavery "border ruffians"
there. In Buchanan's political calculus, any action that could pacify
outraged southerners stood to save the Union.
Taney struck another blow
for white supremacy in the Dred Scott decision. Announced just days before
Buchanan took office, Taney's verdict denied the petition of the slave
Dred Scott, whose master had transported him from Missouri into Illinois
and later Minnesota. Scott claimed that he had become free once he reached
free territory. But Taney argued that African-Americans like Scott could
not sue for their freedom because blacks could not be American citizens.
Furthermore, individual states and territories could not prohibit slavery
within their borders.
Buchanan and Taney's actions
elicited howls of protest among northern abolitionists, and served to
galvanize moderates like Abraham Lincoln to action. Regardless of their
real intentions, the President and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
seemed to be moving in tandem to secure slavery's future in the United
States. Such appearances fueled northerners' political fears of the southern
"slave power," and boosted the Republican Party to rapid prominence
as the vehicle of their fears.
When Stephen Douglas and
Abraham Lincoln took to the hustings in their famous debates around Illinois
in the summer and fall of 1858, they debated few things quite so much
as the role of African-Americans in the future United States of America.
Douglas insisted that they would remain marginal for all time. Lincoln,
despite his reservations about the workings of immediate black social
equality and other concessions to American society's prevailing racial
prejudice, boldly argued that blacks, as much as whites, deserved the
Declaration of Independence's fundamental freedoms of "life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness."
This fundamental divide informed the sectional crisis that led to the
Civil War and catapulted Abraham Lincoln from relative obscurity to
the President's chair in 1861.
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©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project