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.
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.)
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.