From the Black Codes of the 19th century to the largely unwritten “Sundown Laws” of the 20th century, the history of race relations in Illinois has always been fraught with conflicting views and actions.
In accord with the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the new states formed from the old Northwest Territory – the region north and west of the Ohio River – were to be admitted to the Union as free, and not slave, states.
Illinois was formally admitted as a state of the Union in December 1818, the bicentennial of which we’re celebrating this year. But while slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance, that didn’t result in making the new state slave-free.
First of all, the new state’s French inhabitants were allowed to keep their slaves, which created a significant legal loophole. Further, indentured servitude was permitted by law, meaning slave owners could bring their chattel property into Illinois with them as long as they engaged in a legal fiction by classifying their slaves as indentured servants.
When it became clear Congress was going to establish the State of Illinois, elections were held and the first General Assembly began meeting on Oct. 4, 1818. The session lasted until March 31, 1819. During that first General Assembly, one of the major pieces of legislation passed was the state’s first Black Code. Under the new law, black residents of Illinois were prohibited from voting, testifying or bringing suit against whites. They were prohibited from gathering in groups of three or more without risk of being jailed or flogged. Further, they were prohibited from serving in the militia and so were denied their Second Amendment right to own or bear arms.
It was mandatory for blacks living in Illinois to obtain and carry a Certificate of Freedom with them at all times. Otherwise, they were assumed to be escaped slaves and were liable for arrest.
The new Illinois constitution also allowed unlimited indentured servitude – which was slavery in all but name – at the salt mines in southern Illinois, which were one of the new government’s main revenue sources.
At that time, most of the state’s residents had emigrated from the south, and most of the early state officials were Southerners who were former – and sometimes current – slave owners. As a result, pro-slavery forces began militating for a new state constitutional convention at which they planned to write and pass a pro-slavery constitution. In 1822, the statewide referendum failed by a fairly substantial margin, but in response to the pro-slavery lobby, a series of even more restrictive Black Codes were adopted.
An 1829 addition to the Black Codes required all free black Illinois residents to register at their county seat, and they also had to register a certificate of freedom from the state in which they had previously lived. Further, they were required to post a $1,000 bond to cover any future costs should they become indigent or break the law. In today’s dollars, that was requiring a $25,000 bond, something that very few black families could afford for every family member. In practice, most blacks who emigrated to Illinois during that period usually found a friendly white resident who would post the bond for them – creating a nearly insurmountable debt.
As a result, most of the black slaves who fled their owners south of the Ohio River lived in Illinois illegally, subject to arrest and flogging if caught. The frequent escapes created an atmosphere of fear, especially in southern Illinois where slave catchers from Kentucky and Tennessee had no compunctions about kidnapping legally free blacks and selling them south of the river. It was, in fact, a financially lucrative practice which state officials largely ignored. An 1853 law, sponsored by John A. Logan, later a Civil War general and creator of Memorial Day, was even more draconian and unfair.
It was a precarious existence, but one many enslaved people were willing to chance to gain their freedom. And things didn’t significantly change until the Civil War.
As the war dragged on, more troops were needed, and eventually the entreaties of prominent northern blacks persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to authorize enlistment of several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Illinois Gov. Richard Yates enthusiastically jumped at the chance to enlist a black regiment from Illinois, but recruitment was slow as black Illinoisans pointed out the onerous and unfair restrictions on their freedoms represented by the state’s Black Codes.
In partial response, and bowing to the reality that black Illinoisans were indeed being armed by the hundreds to fight against southern sedition, the General Assembly repealed the Black Codes early in 1865. But even then, black residents were not granted the right to vote or most of the other civil rights white residents took for granted. Those were finally granted by the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, as well as the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885.
Even so, Yates was able to use promises of future civil rights, as well as monetary bounties, to facilitate recruiting for Illinois’ black infantry regiment, which was mustered into United States service as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. The regiment fought through the later stages of the Civil War, acquitting itself very well. It was severely mauled during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, suffering many killed and wounded. Among the wounded was Pvt. Nathan Hughes, who would recover only to get wounded one more time before moving to Kendall County after the war to farm along Minkler Road. Hughes and his comrade Thomas Jefferson, both veterans of the 29th, are buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, along with Robert Ridley Smith, a veteran of the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, and Tony Burnett, who served as a cook with the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.
Given the roadblocks thrown up in front of them, it is remarkable that so many black Illinois residents fought their way to the right to serve their country and their state during the nation’s time of such great need. Oswego’s Little White School Museum is now honoring these and all of the community’s other veterans during their annual Remembering our Veterans exhibit; admission is free.
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