It’s not often little shops like the Little White School Museum get to help the really big boys in the history game, but today was one of those days.
The news broke earlier today, spread all over the Midwest by the Associated Press, that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield had acquired a photo of a black Civil War veteran for their collection. It is significant because it’s the only known photograph of a black veteran from Illinois.
Our part of the story begins when my buddy Glenn stopped by the museum today and demanded to know why I hadn’t told him he’d held a historical treasure in his own two hands, to which I professed ignorance. He suggested I use the Google to find “Nathan Hughes,” which I did, coming across a list of the stories about the find.
What Glenn was referring to was that the Little White School Museum also has a fairly pristine copy of the same photo in our collections, donated more than 20 years ago by the Collins family. The Lincoln Library folks seemed a little unclear on Nathan Hughes’ biography, so I e-mailed them a bunch of stuff from our collections, to which Kathryn Harris, library services director, immediately and enthusiastically responded.
Nathan Hughes saw some hard campaigning during the war before coming back to Illinois to farm out on Minkler Road southeast of Oswego. He was a valued member of the farming community out there and was the only black member of a Grand Army of the Republic post in Kendall County. His grandson, Ferdinand Smith, was the first black male to graduate from high school in Kendall County–right here in Oswego. And Ferdinand’s sister was the first black female high school graduate in Kendall County.
When Nathan died in 1910, here’s what the Kendall County Record had to say in his obituary in their March 9 edition:
Word came to Yorkville Monday morning that Mr. Nathan Hughes had died at his home Monday morning, aged 86 years, at his home in Specie Grove. Mr. Hughes was a well-known colored man who served his country as a Union soldier during the civil war. He was a member of Yorkville Post, GAR. Comrade Hughes was respected by his neighbors and the comrades of the Post; he was always a gentleman in his intercourse with our people and his color made no difference in his reception by his friends. It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits. Comrade Hughes had been failing health for a long time, but was patient and courteous till the end came. A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the “boys in blue.”
Just like the Little White School Museum, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is going to give Nathan Hughes a prominent spot in their upcoming “Boys in Blue” Civil War exhibit. And we here in Oswego are always glad to help the big boys out when they need a little assistance…