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Documenting Illinois’ first statewide Black political conference

History project profiles 25 antebellum activists engaged in the struggle for racial justice
Black organizers and Illinois map
Bird’s eye view of Chicago in 1853. Wikimedia Commons and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Libraries, American Geographical Society Library Digital Map Collection, Chicago in early days, 1779-1857

When Illinois lawmakers passed a bill barring free Blacks from migrating into the state in 1853, Black residents got busy organizing a statewide protest.

A new digital exhibit by Northwestern University scholars profiles the lives of 25 Black men and women who were active in the struggle for racial justice in 19th-century Illinois. They responded to Illinois’ most oppressive Black law by organizing the first statewide political gathering of Black Illinoisans in 1853. They also pressed renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass to convene a new national convention to discuss the perilous situation of Black people in the U.S.

The exhibit, “Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice,” launches Feb. 16. The exhibit will live on Penn State University’s Colored Conventions Project website, which preserves the records of seven decades of early Black convention organizing and features interactive historical exhibits documenting what was then called the Colored Convention movement.

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People may think of Illinois as a free state from the start and the ‘Land of Lincoln.’ They may imagine that African Americans didn’t have a significant presence here until the Great Migration. This exhibit tells us something quite different.”

Historian Kate Masur

Northwestern’s exhibit is the culmination of a two-year research project led by Kate Masur, professor of history and Board of Visitors Professor at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The research and creation team included student researchers, and support from digital humanities librarian Josh Honn of Northwestern Libraries and Media and Design Studio director Matthew Taylor of Weinberg.

“People may think of Illinois as a free state from the start and the ‘Land of Lincoln,’” Masur said. “They may imagine that African Americans didn’t have a significant presence here until the Great Migration. This exhibit tells us something quite different.”

Building community, fighting for justice

The exhibit’s two themes are community building and fighting for justice. The churches and schools African Americans created in Alton, Springfield, Galena, Chicago and other locales enabled Black settlers to find support and put down roots at a time when many state and local policies were stacked against them.

Focused on the periods before, during and after the historic 1853 convention, the exhibit includes interactive maps that show where Illinois’ earliest Black residents settled and the locations of Underground Railroad safe houses in Chicago.

Masur believes many will be surprised by the stories in the exhibit.

Women, such as Mary Richardson Jones, sustained their communities — caring for relatives, fundraising for churches, welcoming fugitive slaves into their home and creating educational opportunities for their children.

Local community institutions were the foundation for political organizing.

“Barring Black migration into the state imperiled the lives of Black people in other places,” said Mikala Stokes, a doctoral candidate in the history department and one of the project’s student researchers.

John and Mary Jones
John and Mary Jones in the 1840s. Wikimedia Commons and Bruce Purnell

“Illinois’ 1853 Black law barred African American migrants from enjoying the same freedom of movement that many people in this era held as one of the founding ideals of America. Like most migrants, African Americans moved to new communities to build a better life for themselves and future generations,” Stokes said.

“At this point, Illinois was less populated than some of the eastern states and presented an attractive opportunity for the formerly enslaved, fugitive slaves and people who were legally free to come and settle. The pernicious part of the law is that those who crossed state lines could be fined. If they couldn’t pay the fine, someone else could, but would then have a right to your labor to pay off the fine. In a slave-holding republic, this prospect of temporary forced labor looked a lot like slavery. This law is one of many examples of how slavery imperiled the lives of all African Americans.”

Hope McCaffrey, a graduate student in the history department, also worked on the project.

“One aspect of this research that surprised me was just how wide the scope of these activists’ lives were both geographically and regarding their organizing. The range of issues they tackled was immense: fighting for schools and education, civil rights, emancipation, working the Underground Railroad and advocating for women’s rights were just a handful of the causes these organizers fought for throughout the course of their lives,” McCaffrey said.

One issue of concern to antebellum activists that resonates today is education.

“In antebellum Illinois, a formal education presented an opportunity to learn a trade and make a sufficient living,” said Marquis Taylor, a doctoral student in history.

“Black activists often protested the local courts’ decision to exclude Black children from public schools. They tied economic empowerment to larger ambitions about achieving equality for Black people. Of course, there are nuances in our contemporary understanding of education’s purpose, but I think by and large people view education as fulfilling a similar meaning as earlier Black activists. Today’s activists challenge the public education system for perpetuating education inequality — particularly in majority Black schools,” Taylor said.

Project launch celebration

Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities will host a project launch celebration March 1 featuring a panel discussion with exhibit developers Emiliano Aguilar, Lia Davis, Josh Honn, Valeria Lira-Ruelas, Kate Masur, Hope McCaffrey, Shira Nash, Mikala Stokes, Marquis Taylor and Matt Taylor.

The hybrid event is free and open to the public. RSVP for the webinar on Zoom. In-person seating is limited. More information is available on the Northwestern events calendar.

Among the 1853 convention and activists profiled in the exhibit

  • Mary Richardson Jones became a leader in the Black Women’s Club movement in Chicago during the late 19th century and worked alongside younger activists, including Ida B. Wells and Fannie Barrier Williams. During the Civil War, she served as president of the Colored Ladies’ Freedmen’s Aid Society, which raised money and collected supplies for people newly freed from slavery. 
  • Lewis Isbell was one of the first African Americans to move to Chicago, arriving in 1838. He became known as a competitive runner, as well as one of the most prominent and respected barbers in the city. He was once shot at by an enslaver while working the Underground Railroad. He also petitioned the U.S. government for a pension after serving as a recruiter of Black soldiers during the Civil War.
  • The 1853 Chicago Convention occurred during an intense debate among northern African Americans about whether they should try to leave the United States because of its racism. Martin Delany, a Pittsburgh-based activist, insisted that free Black people should consider emigration. Frederick Douglass disagreed. The Chicago convention debated the issue and ultimately sided with Douglass, declaring: “We will plant our trees on American soil, and repose in the shade thereof.”
  • Henry Brown became known for leading the Lincoln family’s horse during Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in Springfield. But Brown was a crucial member of Springfield’s Black community: an A.M.E. minister, Underground Railroad activist, and delegate to the 1853 Chicago convention.
  • In the Alton region, African American Baptists formed the Wood River Baptist Association, a network of Black churches that gave rise to organizing for justice in education and repeal of the black laws, particularly in the southwestern part of the state.
  • One of the Galena delegates, Richard H. Cain, became a prominent A.M.E. minister and U.S. congressman from South Carolina during Reconstruction. 

The Colored Conventions Project

The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) is a scholarly and community research project dedicated to bringing the seven decades-long history of 19th-century Black organizing to digital life. Mirroring the collective nature of the 19th century, the CCP uses innovative, inclusive models and partnerships to locate, transcribe and archive the documentary record related to this nearly forgotten history and to curate digital exhibits that highlight its stories, events and themes.

The CCP is sponsored by Penn State’s Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, a public-facing research center committed to bringing the histories of early Black organizing to digital life through innovative scholarship and collaborative partnerships. The Center is also home to Douglass Day and the Black Women’s Organizing Archive.

For Journalists: view the news release for media contacts and assets