African American Communities

Wes Brady, formerly enslaved in 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 enslaved people 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 Black settlers were attracted to Illinois because enslavement had been discouraged by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and Illinois had not become an enslavement state. Facing increasing restrictions in southern states, many came to southern Illinois hoping for a better life. White settlers also came to Illinois for the purpose of freeing their enslaved people and providing them with opportunities.

In southern Illinois, Black settlers farmed on land that they owned and formed small communities, working as tradespeople, preachers, businesspeople, 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 Black people were able to win court cases.

Black 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 enslaved salt miners who had purchased their freedom. The Black 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, formerly enslaved Joseph Higginbotham bought land and founded a settlement around the 1830s, attracting other free Black settlers. To the east in St. Clair County, fugitive enslaved people and free Black people settled Brooklyn around 1829. Northeast of Brooklyn was Pin Oak, settled by those freed by Illinois Governor Edward Coles, who were joined by Harry Dougherty, a former fugitive 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 Black people 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 enslaved people 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.