African American Communities

Wes Brady, former slave from Texas, in a 1937 photograph by the Federal Writers' Project of the U.S. Works Progress Administration, from the Library of Congress. Read his story and others HERE.

When Illinois was claimed by France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French settlers owned slaves and freed some of them. More gained their freedom by serving in the American Army during the Revolutionary War, from 1776 to 1783, but Native American conflict in Illinois largely discouraged further settlement until 1815, when free black settlers began to arrive from Virginia and the Carolinas.

Free African Americans were attracted to Illinois because slavery had been discouraged by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and Illinois had not become a slave state. Faced with increasing restrictions in southern states, many came to Southern Illinois hoping for a better life. Slave holders also came to Illinois for the purpose of freeing their slaves and providing them with opportunities.

In Southern Illinois, African Americans farmed on land that they owned and formed small communities, working as tradesmen, preachers, businessmen, and teachers. In Hamilton County, white settlers engaged a black preacher as their first school teacher. While interracial marriage was forbidden by law in Illinois, marriages still took place, and free blacks were able to win court cases.

African American settlements ranged across Southern Illinois from northeastern Lawrence County to southern Union County. Communities in Saline County included one formed by black innkeeper Cornelius Elliott in the 1820s and another formed by salt mine slaves who had purchased their freedom. The African American settlement of Allen in eastern Union County was founded in 1828 by Arthur and Patience Allen, farmers from North Carolina. They purchased more land over time and were well-regarded by their white neighbors, including Quakers in Johnson County. Far to the north in Clay County, former slave Joseph Higginbotham bought land and founded a settlement around the 1830s, attracting other free African Americans. To the east in St. Clair County, runaway slaves and free blacks settled Brooklyn around 1829. Northeast of Brooklyn was Pin Oak, settled by freed slaves of Illinois Governor Edward Coles, who were joined by Harry Dougherty, a former runaway slave who was freed and became a landowner.

In Union County near Jonesboro, Joseph Ivey was a skillful businessman who purchased property before 1830, amassing four hundred acres. Union County commissioners in Jonesboro hired him to build a bridge over the Running Lake waterway, which led to Ivey’s grist mill. Thirty-five free African Americans and their white friends lived in the settlement of Ivey by 1835. Emancipated families from Tennessee settled in Pope County during the 1840s.

Former indentured servants and freed slaves founded the settlement of Africa near the Franklin and Williamson County line. Although they nearly abandoned their community due to threats from Southern sympathizers before the Civil War, white Methodists convinced them to stay and open a school.


Russell, Herbert K. 2012. The state of southern Illinois an illustrated history. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press.

Smith, George Washington. 1912. A history of southern Illinois: a narrative account of its historical progress, its people, and its principal interests. Chicago: The Lewis Pub. Co.