Monthly Archives: February 2015

African American History Month…

February is African American History Month. I’ve always wondered why January wasn’t selected as the month to honor the history of the nation’s black residents since, to me, at least, January seems to make a lot more sense. After all, it’s the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. But February it is.

Every year about this time, I hear folks wondering how come we need a African American History Month at all. After all, blacks are citizens like everyone else and other ethnic groups don’t have their own history months. Except they do. For instance, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month, September is National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. And November honors American Indians.

And there’s one major historical difference between African Americans and all the nation’s other ethnic groups: blacks are the only ones who were brought here involuntarily.

Black slaves were first imported into Illinois during the French colonial era. The first 500 blacks were brought from Haiti in 1720 to work mines and when that didn’t pan out, to grow crops in and around the colonial towns of Cahokia and Kaskaskia that were exported downriver to New Orleans. Slavery continued in Illinois throughout the colonial era and after the Revolutionary War secured Illinois for the new United States. When the Northwest Ordinance was passed in 1787 establishing the Northwest Territory (which included the eventual states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana), slavery was prohibited, with the major loophole that slaves owned by the territory’s French residents were permitted. Illinois was first settled by Southerners coming up from Tennessee and Kentucky. Because of the pro-slavery stance of so many of Illinois’ earliest residents, turning it into a slave state was narrowly avoided during a contentious political campaign in 1824, thanks to the strong anti-slavery views of the growing number of settlers from northern states and England.

Kendall County’s black history began a decade later. Among those arriving in the county in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray, and Elias Dial. The group decided to settle around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area in Fox Township.

The group was notable for a couple of reasons. First, they hadn’t moved west in gradual stages via the Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Illinois route most Southerner settlers took. Instead, like the flood of pioneers from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, they came directly from the South. But unlike those other settlers, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 history of Kendall County, the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks noted the South Carolinians “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is highly unlikely, however, that either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when the Carns and Murrays brought them to Kendall County. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. With state government still heavily in the hands of slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who insisted on owning their fellow humans.

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County's black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes' daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day.  (Little White School Museum collection)

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County’s black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes’ daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the next 35 years, few other blacks lived in Kendall County, at least according to the dectennial censuses. But after the Civil War, the county saw a flood of former slaves arrive and settle on farms. Others moved to the county’s small towns where they established businesses or worked for white residents.

The heyday of the county’s black farming community was in the 1880s, after which many of the families left the land to work in factories in the Kendall County community of Plano and in nearby Aurora, whose industrial base was booming. The descendants of those families still live in and around Aurora, while others who grew up in and around Oswego have moved on and up, parlaying their small town roots into a wide range of careers including service as educators from public schools through university. (For a more in-depth look at the African American community in Kendall County, follow the link to one of my recent Ledger-Sentinel columns.)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes' grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes’ grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Interestingly enough, these new residents to this small corner of northern Illinois seemed to fit in pretty well. Their kids went to local schools, and out in rural areas they participated in the farming culture. In town, some of them became integrated into community life. The big question, for me and for their descendants who are now working on their family histories, is why did they choose to move to Kendall County? What was the lure? No one living apparently knows. It seems an odd choice. Yes, the county had a rail line running through it’s northern tier, but most of the black families that came in the wake of the Civil War settled several miles away from that line.

There was no existing African American community here in Kendall County, and those families who had left the old slave states could not be at all sure what their reception would be. And for many reasons, those receptions turned out to be reasonably affable. It didn’t hurt that some of tho African American men who came after the war were veterans of the conflict like so many of their white neighbors. The Grand Army of the Republic, the politically powerful Union veterans’ organization, normally did not welcome black members. But here in Kendall County they did. Private Nathan Hughes, badly wounded in the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., was not only welcomed into the Yorkville GAR post, but also served as an officer. His grandchildren became the first black people to graduate from high school in the county, and his great-great-great grandchildren went on to become college professors.

Interestingly enough, during those early years,it was often impossible to tell from the local weekly newspaper whether the subjects of local news articles were black or white. It wasn’t until the post World War I xenophobia kicked in that widespread racism and ethnic bigotry gained a foothold in Kendall County. The slide was so complete that the once-color blind local press joined in and in the 1920s the KKK even had some affiliate groups in the county.

Today, in the early years of the 21st Century, in terms of racism and ethnic bigotry, Kendall County has largely gotten back to where it was a century ago. Whether progress or regression, that seems like a good thing.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Uncategorized

Instructions no longer available…

Every once in a while, during those slow news weeks, the media hauls out one of their old standby pieces, one of which is the one about modern kids having no idea how to use a rotary dial telephone.

This Bell System rotary dial phone looks like it's got a smile on its face, but its days were, unfortunately, numbered. But, hey kids, they really were easy to use!

This Bell System rotary dial phone looks like it’s got a smile on its face, but its days were, unfortunately, numbered. But, hey kids, they really were easy to use!

Once the Bell System introduced their Touch Tone technology, the old rotary dial instruments were living on borrowed time.

Of course, as time was passing, so were wired phones themselves, except for a few of us dinosaurs who still keep our landlines as sort of connections to a time that is rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror.

Most kids these days, unless they’ve seen one in an old film on Turner Classic Movies, really do have no idea how to use a rotary dial phone. I’ve still got two or three Princess dial phones up in the attic in case the Appocolipse arrives and pushbotton phones no longer work, but I suspect there are extremely few of the old girls still kicking around.

Which is fine. Times change. Not everyone alive today grew up with rotary dials. In fact, I remember when some phones didn’t have dials at all; you just picked up the receiver and asked the operator to connect you with whatever number you wanted.

When rotary dials came in, phone users had to learn how to use them. Now, apparently, at least some youngsters would have to learn to use them again should they have to. Which got me to thinking about all the things we used to use on a regular basis, but which some specialized training would be needed should we suddenly be forced to use them again today.

Remember one of these babies? It was a sort of mathematical torture device called a "slide rule," and it brings back bad memories of things like gas laws.

Remember one of these babies? It was a sort of mathematical torture device called a “slide rule,” and it brings back bad memories of things like gas laws.

The first thing that came to mind were slide rules. Back in the ’60s, you could tell the students taking physics and calculus and the rest of those incomprehensible classes where you came into contact with stuff like logarithms—they all carried slide rules. The really serious students carried slide rules in scabbards attached to their belts like hunting knives. They insisted you could use a slide rule to calculate answers to math problems, and apparently most of them did. I could never get the hang of the things, though, because their use seemed more an art than a skill.

But anyway, hand a kid a slide rule today, and the question would be “What am I supposed to do with this?” In this day of pocket-sized electronic calculators that have more power than a room full of computer equipment did 30 years ago, slide rule makers and user have gone the way of the buggy whip makers.

Here are (most) of the parts of the kind of harness our great-grandparents could use to hitch a horse to a buggy with their eyes closed. As you can see, it was simplicity itself...

Here are (most) of the parts of the kind of harness our great-grandparents could use to hitch a horse to a buggy with their eyes closed. As you can see, it was simplicity itself…

Speaking of buggy whips, getting around at the turn of the century took skills that hardly any of us have today, the primary one being the knowledge of harnesses. In horse and buggy days, the horse was attached to the buggy with a complicated harness of leather straps and buckles, collars, and the rest of what you needed to get a horse-drawn vehicle from here to there. The skill needed to harness a horse is gone from the population at large these days, as are such terms as evener, singletree, doubletree, and the rest of the equipment needed for the direct application of horsepower to transportation.

Just cooking a meal back at the turn of the last century took skills that few of us have today, namely the correct use of a cook stove. Cook stoves could be fired using wood, corncobs, or even coal. The trick was to know which fuel was appropriate for which job, and then to know how to regulate the draft so as to produce even baking and cooking heat. Like using the slide rule, it was more an art than a science. My grandmother used to test the oven heat when she baked bread in her cook stove out on the farm by sticking her hand in the oven to gauge the temperature.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering's gasoline utility engines. My grandfather used it to power his concrete mixer and for other far chores in pre-rural electrification days.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering’s gasoline utility engines. My grandfather used it to power his concrete mixer and for other farm chores in those pre-rural electrification days.

Household operations as a whole, not just cooking, used skills that haven’t been used by most housewives for a few generations now. The cook stove referred to above was central to washing clothes and then ironing them as well. Monday was wash day, with water to wash clothes in heated on the cook stove (or sometimes on a smaller laundry stove). Hand clothes washing gave way to washing using powered washing machines, but the first of those were powered with gasoline engines. That meant housewives had to know a smattering of small engine repair and operation as well as how to get the most out of hard bars of lye soap (Hint: Whittling slices off with a sharp knife helps the soap dissolve in the wash water easier).

If Monday was wash day, Tuesday was always ironing day, with the cook stove pressed into service again to heat the cast iron sadirons. Tuesday usually became baking day as well to take advantage of the hot stove.

Meanwhile, out in the garage, the old reliable horse and buggy had been replaced by a Model T Ford or other automobile. The old cars look familiar—they’ve got four rubber tired wheels, doors, and a steering wheel. But get behind the wheel of a Model T, and it may as well be a space ship for most of us. How do you advance the spark to get the Tin Lizzie started? What does ‘advancing the spark’ even mean? How the heck do you shift gears? What are all those strange pedals on the floor? And what’s the deal with that crank below the radiator in front?

A Model T Ford looks simple and primitive from the outside, but the inside's a different thing. One thing Tin Lizzie owners don't have to worry about these days is some cluck jumping in and driving off with their Model T.

A Model T Ford looks simple and primitive from the outside, but the inside’s a different thing. One thing Tin Lizzie owners don’t have to worry about these days is some cluck jumping in and driving off with their Model T.

Later when the inside of cars and trucks began looking more familiar to our modern eyes, there were still some strange buttons and knobs. Some cars had separate starter pedals next to the accelerator that took some dexterity to use—some skill was needed to press the starter foot switch and the accelerator with the same foot to start while giving the engine a little gas. And some of those cars and trucks had throttles and choke knobs mounted on the dashboard. How many of us would know what to do with them?

We don’t realize how fleeting even common actions are until we haven’t used them for a generation.

While most of us recognize cook stoves, Model T’s, and possibly even a gasoline engine-powered Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine for what they are, figuring out how to use them is, as folks say down in Texas, a whole ‘nother thing.

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