African Americans in Southern Illinois


Africans arrived in Southern Illinois for the first time after it became part of the French colony of Louisiana. Around 1723, Philippe Renault brought in hundreds of African slaves from Saint-Domingue (now the Dominican Republic) for his mining operations. When France ceded Illinois to Britain in 1763, there were nearly 600 slaves in the region, both African and Native American.

Advertisement for a 1743 publication of French law pertaining to black slaves:

Black Code, or Collection of Edicts, Declarations and Judgments concerning the Negro Slaves of America, with a Collection of Regulations, concerning the police of the French Islands of America and Indentured Servants

Map of the Northwest Territory, developed by Wikimedia Commons user Jengod

In 1778 the newly formed American government laid claim to Illinois, later including it in the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory but allowed slave owners from other areas to capture fugitive slaves. The territorial governor interpreted the Ordinance to mean that while no new slaves could be brought into the territory, those already in the territory could legally remain enslaved.

When Illinois later became part of the Indiana Territory in 1800, the territorial government prevented slaves from gaining their freedom by permitting lengthy terms of indentured servitude, which bound workers to a particular person for a period of time in return for shelter and food. The first antislavery movement in Southern Illinois was started by Virginian James Lemen when he began promoting the ideals of Emancipation Baptists in 1809 near Waterloo.

As a state in 1818, Illinois continued to allow slavery in the salt mines and permitted current slave owners to keep their slaves. Lemen worked with other Emancipation Baptists and Illinois governor Edward Coles from 1822 to 1824 to prevent Illinois from becoming a slave state. Eastern ministers John Mason Peck and Elijah Lovejoy later contributed to the movement. Lovejoy died in 1837 defending his printing press from a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois.

Woodcut illustration of the death of Reverend E. P. Lovejoy in Alton at the hands of a pro-slavery mob in 1837, from the Missouri Historical Society

Abolitionists faced mounting opposition. In 1853, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation spearheaded by Representative John A. Logan limiting the rights of free blacks living in the state and discouraging further migration of free blacks with exorbitant fines and threats of indentured servitude.

Although Logan reversed his views during the Civil War, his early pro-slavery stance haunted his political ambitions. As he campaigned for Vice President in 1884, the satirical magazine Puck attacked his record.

John A. Logan in 1859, illustrated by Bernard Gillam in Puck magazine, July 9, 1884, from the Library of Congress
Portrait photograph of Frederick Douglass, circa 1879, from the National Archives and Records Administration

Slavery became an increasingly contentious issue as western territories gained statehood. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 called for “popular sovereignty”, requiring that the decision about slavery be made by a vote of the territory’s settlers rather than outsiders. The issue was hotly debated by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during the Illinois senate race of 1858. While Abraham Lincoln only opposed extension of slavery into the territories, many southern states reacted to his election as President in 1860 by seceding from the United States.

On April 23, 1861 the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, prompting free black men to attempt enlisting in U.S. military units. Although blacks had served in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, they were turned away by a federal law barring blacks from bearing arms for the U.S. Army. Disappointed would-be volunteers met in Boston, requesting permission to enlist. The Lincoln administration wrestled with the idea of authorizing the recruitment of black troops, concerned that such a move would prompt states along the Confederate border to secede. However, by mid-1862, growing numbers of former slaves and declining white volunteers led the government to reconsider.

Carte-de-visit of Harriet Tubman, circa 1868, photographed by Benjamin F. Powelson, from the Library of Congress

Overcoming resistance to recruitment following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the first black Union regiments were organized in 1863 and about 1,800 blacks from Illinois enlisted. Leaders like Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to serve in order to eventually gain full citizenship. By the end of the Civil War, black soldiers were ten percent of the Union Army, around 179,000 men, with another 19,000 serving in the Navy. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. Black women served informally as nurses, spies, and scouts; Harriet Tubman scouted for the 2d South Carolina Volunteers. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers gave their lives. Sixteen black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.

The black population of Southern Illinois remained low until the end of the Civil War, when a number of black soldiers made it their home. Granted citizenship by the 13th Amendment, newly arrived African Americans developed farms, worked in coal mining and other industries, and owned businesses. African American Civil War veterans living around Murphysboro formed their own chapter of Grand Army of the Republic, Post 728.