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Celebrate Black History Month

Black History Month in Illinois: The Legacy Preceding the Civil War

John Russell Feb. 12, 2023

On January 31, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would prohibit slavery anywhere in the United States or its territories. President Abraham Lincoln had made the approval of the 13th Amendment his primary focus at that time, and used his ample political influence to help push the bill through. Because the Senate had already approved the measure in April, 1864, the amendment was sent to the State legislatures for ratification. On the next day, February 1, 1865, Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment, putting Illinois at the forefront of the newborn civil rights movement.

Illinois became a state in 1818. The first Illinois State Constitution prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude but permitted a system of indentured servants. This system of “indenture” went back to 1803, when the Indiana Territory’s governing council developed a system of long-term indenture which was the practical equivalent of slavery. (Illinois was part of the Indiana Territory at the time). Therefore, despite technically not allowing for slavery prior to Illinois becoming a State, the territorial government allowed what was tantamount to “private slavery” – though the government did not condone slavery officially, individuals could be held as indentured servants under long term private contracts or judicial orders. (Being an “indentured servant” involved a person obligated by contract to work without payment for a specific number of years. The contract was called an “indenture,” and it was often used when someone apprenticed for a trade, to pay off a debt, to avoid prison, or as a judicial punishment. Like other contracts or loans, an indenture could be sold or assigned).

In 1814, the Illinois territorial legislature authorized the use of slaves in salt mining in the State. While the use of slaves was purportedly limited to this work, this provided the legal context to allow for general slavery in Illinois.

Thus, even though Illinois was official a “free state,” and slavery was officially outlawed, as late as 1840, the Illinois census counted 331 African American slaves. In 1848, Illinois voters overwhelmingly approved a new state constitution which expressly prohibited “free persons of color” from immigrating to Illinois and preventing slave owners from bringing slaves into the state for the purpose of setting them free. In fact, in 1853, the Illinois legislature made it a crime to bring a “free negro” into the state. That same year, Illinois enacted its controversial “Black Codes,” or “Black Laws,” which established legal discrimination against African Americans in the state.

In 1857, Dred Scott, a Missouri slave, brought a lawsuit for his freedom in state and federal court. He contended that his residence of twenty years earlier at Fort Armstrong in Rock Island, Illinois, gave him the right to be free. The state and federal courts, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, reject Scott’s argument. The Dred Scott decision by the United States Supreme Court declared that no African American, free or slave, was a “full citizen” and therefore could not bring a suit in court; further, the decision stated that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the states and territories. Chief Justice Roger Taney authored opinion, stating that black Americans have “no rights which any white man is bound to respect.”

Despite this extremely shameful period in Illinois, some Illinoisans worked tirelessly to push the tide the other way.

In September 1862, President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that the Confederate States rebelling against the United States in the Civil War must abandon their hostilities or lose their slaves by January 1, 1863. On New Years’ Day, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, enacting an executive order declaring all slaves free in all states and territories that were in rebellion against the Union (which excluded the Northern states).

Meanwhile, that same year, the 29th United States Colored Infantry was formed, becoming the first Civil War regiment composed almost entirely of Illinois African Americans. The exact number is probably higher, but approximately 1,811 Illinois African Americans served in U. S. infantry, artillery, and cavalry units during the Civil War.

Then, in 1864, John Jones, an abolitionist and Underground Railroad station manager, publishes The Black Laws of Illinois … and Why They Should Be Repealed. His lobbying efforts are influential in the repeal of these laws by the legislature. (Jones, a wealthy Chicago tailor, later serves as Cook County commissioner (1871-1875)).

Also in 1864, U. S. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois co-authored and sponsored the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. The Senate passed the proposed amendment on April 8, 1864, but it languished in the U. S. House. In his Annual Message to Congress on December 6, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln urged the House to pass the amendment and send it to the states for ratification. The House took up the proposal the following month and on January 31, 1865, it passed the proposed amendment, sending it to the states by a vote of 119 to 56.

The next day, February 1, 1865, both the Illinois House and Senate approved a joint resolution to ratify the amendment. Governor Oglesby immediately signed the resolution and Illinois became the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment. That night, in remarks from the White House balcony, President Lincoln proudly announced that Illinois had already ratified the amendment and urged the other states to follow suit. At the very same time, the Illinois legislature repealed the controversial “Black Laws.”

The citizens of Illinois can be proud our state stood with Abraham Lincoln and was at the forefront of the beginning of the civil rights movement. But we need to recognize that our state’s history regarding the treatment of African Americans prior to the Civil War is disgraceful and embarrassing. Thankfully, that tide has turned and will continue to turn more and more in the direction of understanding, acceptance, and advocacy for civil rights. It hasn’t been perfect, but there has been progress. We are known, of course, as the “Land of Lincoln.”