We’re nearing the end of this year’s observation of Black History Month, but there’s still plenty of time to recall that not only was there a vibrant Black community in the greater Oswego area in the years after the Civil War, but that those residents, most who were newly freed from slavery, played significant roles in helping build what we have today.
Kendall County’s earliest Black residents didn’t arrive voluntarily, but rather were brought here by their owners. Although Illinois was a free state in the 1830s, Southerners who emigrated to the Fox Valley created the useful fiction that the Black servants they brought with them were ‘indentured’ and not enslaved. It was a thin rationale, but was accepted in a state that was badly conflicted on the topic of abolition.
Not all of those with Southern roots were slave-owners, of course. The Elijah Hopkins family who settled on Wolf’s Crossing Road just outside Oswego in 1857, had Southern roots and brought a servant, Anne, with them when they came. She had been a wedding gift from Mrs. Hopkins’ father, but was apparently freed while the family still lived in Ohio. Anne eventually married Henry Hilliard. The Hilliards farmed in the Oswego area for some years before moving to Aurora where they finished raising their family.
During and after the Civil War, there was a substantial influx of former slaves, some who had served in the Union Army, who chose to live in Oswego and farm in the surrounding countryside. Among those arriving about 1864 was George Washington and his wife, Emma. They farmed and raised their family in the Specie Grove area just south of Oswego, along with several other Black families including the Hughes, Bradfords, Simms, and Longs. Among George and Emma’s children was Emma, who married farmer neighbor Solomon Long.
Not all the area’s Black families arrived immediately after the Civil War, however, and among the later arrivals was Richard Baxter Irvin. Born into slavery in 1859, Richard learned the mason’s trade. Married and living in Nashville in 1899, it’s possible his wife’s death spurred him to move north.
The 1890s in the South were years of great racial upheaval as white legislatures enacted a flurry of racist laws designed to restrict the civil rights of Black citizens. Dubbed Jim Crow laws, the new order was viciously enforced by white mobs and lynch law. Blacks were prevented from holding public office or even voting, and were discriminated against in ways too numerous to count.
So it’s no wonder why Richard decided to leave Tennessee and move north. Why he picked Oswego, though, is a family mystery. Perhaps he knew relatives of former slaves who had already moved to the Fox Valley, or maybe he just decided to head north until he found a place to live that felt safe. Whatever the motivation, he hitched his horse to a buggy and drove the roughly 500 miles from Nashville to Oswego.
He picked wisely, because not only did he find a welcoming home for his mason’s trade, but he also found a wife, marrying Blanche Washington, a NaAuSay Township native and, the daughter of Emma Washington and Solomon Long. Getting firmly plugged into the close-knit Specie Grove Black community probably didn’t hurt Richard’s business prospects. And he was also able to begin a close business relationship with Oswego’s contractors, especially Irvin Haines. Haines contracted on his own, and also worked closely with his in-law, Ed Inman, as well as with Lou C. Young.
In 1908, Haines—who my genealogy program tells me was my first cousin twice removed—built the house where I live for my great-grandparents who were retiring from farming. It’s highly likely Richard Irvin manufactured the decorative concrete blocks that comprise the visible foundation.
Haines, Inman, and Young built dozens of homes, commercial building, and farm buildings all over the greater Oswego area, some as far north as the Village of Montgomery—where, by the way, Haines built a home identical to the one I live in. Richard Irvin was an integral part of the group that these three, and probably several other, Oswego builders regularly called on.
Richard and Blanche raised their family in Oswego where their children attended school and participated in sports. But like many small-town families, the young people found better jobs in bigger cities nearby, most notably Aurora.
And at home, tragedy was striking. In 1928, Richard and Blanche lost two of their children, son William, age 13, and daughter Emma, age 8. Both were mourned by both their family and by their heartbroken schoolmates. According to the Kendall County Record, virtually all the school’s junior high aged students turned out for the funeral and four of his classmates served as Richard’s pallbearers.
And then in 1930, Blanche herself finally succumbed to consumption—tuberculosis—after a long struggle with the deadly disease.
On Sept. 25, 1934, Richard died of chronic endocarditis at his home on Van Buren Street in Oswego. He was laid to rest beside his wife and children in the Cowdrey Cemetery.
His Kendall County Record obituary paid tribute to the contributions Richard made to Oswego’s growth during a 30 year masonry career:
Richard Irving [sic], colored, age 75, a long time resident of Oswego died Sept. 25, 1934. His wife and two children preceded him in death, but he is survived by five children, two daughters and three sons.
Mr. Irving [sic] had a wide acquaintance. He was a mason by trade and many fine pieces of cement work and brick-laying are his work in this community. He was born in slavery in Tennessee 75 years ago.
The funeral was held from the Thorsen funeral home with the Rev. R.E. Gayles of the Aurora A.M.E. Church officiating. Burial was in the Cowdrey Cemetery.
Like so many of the other black families that made the Oswego area their home in the post-Civil War era, the Irvins moved to Aurora, where non-farm jobs in the city’s factories and other businesses offered more opportunities. And there they remain to this day, still contributing to their community.
Richard Irvin was one of those unsung folks, white and black—the carpenters and masons and storekeepers—who helped build the Oswego area and made it work. They all left a mark that, while lasting and visible to us on a daily basis, is all too unfortunately anonymous.
With appreciation to Glen C. Irvin Jr. for sharing his family’s wonderful story…