One Monday night in May 2004, when I was still covering the Oswego School District Board for the Ledger-Sentinel, I sat at the press table during the board meeting, resigned to listen to yet another staff presentation, this one on the program—English Language Learners—designed to help students who live in homes where English is not the first language spoken.
What really got my attention during the teachers’ presentation was the revelation that more than 50 different languages were being spoken in homes throughout the school district. If a more dramatic example was needed that Oswegoans were no longer living in the relatively isolated small farming town of my youth, this was certainly it. Nowadays, I’ve found by a bit of digging, fewer non-English languages are being spoken at homes throughout the school district, but the number is still more than 30.
Times in our little corner of the Midwest had actually begun changing many years before 2004, of course. By even the 1970s Kendall County had gone a long way past the era—which extended as late as the 1950s—when Kendall County residential developers added covenants prohibiting blacks and Jews, and sometimes Catholics, from buying homes they were building. And the era of the official and unofficial “sunset laws” that prohibited blacks from being in area towns after the sun set had also been as quietly discarded by that time as they had been instituted in the first place.
The interesting thing to me, as I grew up in and then made my home in Kendall County— and learned about the racism that was downplayed so effectively in our history classes—was not the casual racism that existed virtually everywhere; I expected that. Rather it was that the county, almost from the time of its earliest permanent setters, was home to varying numbers of minority residents who were, for the most part, accepted on their own merits by their white neighbors.
Among the settlers who arrived in Kendall County in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray and Elias Dial, all of whom settled around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area of Fox Township on the county’s west border.
The party, unlike so many other pioneers of that era who hailed from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, had come directly from the South. Also unlike settlers from other regions, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.
In his 1877 county history, the Rev. E.W. Hicks wrote that the families “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 unlikely either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when they arrived on the Illinois prairies. 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. And with state government still heavily influenced by slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who enjoyed owning their fellow humans. The low regard their owners had for the two women brought here in 1834 is suggested by the failure to record their surnames—assuming they had been given them by their owners in the first place, of course.
During the tempestuous years leading up to the Civil War, the federal Fugitive Slave Act and Illinois’ own Black Laws made it difficult, if not downright dangerous, for free black people to live in Illinois. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the county’s black population stood at six persons, two each in Oswego and Kendall townships, and one each in Fox and Franklin (later renamed Seward) townships. The county’s 1860 census recorded a single black person living in Oswego Township. Whether those counts were accurate or not is one of history’s open questions.
After the Civil War, Kendall County’s population began a long, slow decline, with the county total declining by some 3,000 residents between 1860 and 1920. The reasons for this probably ranged from the lure of cheap land west of the Mississippi to the lingering psychological effects of the Civil War.
But strangely enough, while its overall population was declining immediately after the war, the county’s black population boomed. From the single black person officially counted in 1860, Kendall’s black population grew to the official county of 54 in 1870, with nearly half of them calling NaAuSay Township, bordering Oswego Township to the south, home.
Most of NaAuSay Township’s 22 black residents lived and worked on farms in the township’s northwest corner. Thomas Lewis and his wife, Lucinda; George Washington and his wife, Emma; Neuman Northcup and wife Lusan; and Alfred Lucas and his two nearly grown children were all residents of that neighborhood. According to the census records, the value of the individual farms in this small island of black culture in overwhelmingly white Kendall County was comparable to their white neighbors, as was the value of the personal property they owned.
As the years wore on, however, the county’s black farmers slowly left the land to live in nearby towns where they found work off the farm. The family of Nathan Hughes is a good example of the trend. Hughes, a Civil War veteran, farmed in NaAuSay Township in the Minkler Road area after the Civil War. He married into the Lucas family, which already had roots in the township’s farming community, and his children subsequently married into the Smith family, which was living in Oswego. Hughes was a respected member of the community who was an officer in the Yorkville post of the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization.
In 1903, Hughes’ grandson, Ferdinand Smith, became the first black student to graduate from a Kendall County high school. As the June 1, 1903 Kendall County Record reported: “”It was the first time a class contained a colored member; the Negroes were well represented in the audience and Uncle Nathan Hughes was there to see his grandson take this important step” Then in 1904, Ferdinand’s sister, Mary, became the first black female to graduate from a Kendall County high school, followed in 1907 by their sister, Frances. Many descendants of the Hughes and Smith families still live in the Fox Valley area.
Today, Kendall County’s African-American population is substantial, most having arrived as part of the housing boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike the two slave women brought here from South Carolina in 1834, though, they’ve come to the Fox Valley voluntarily. And with any luck, like the members of the extended Hughes and Smith families, their descendants will value the roots they’ve put down here.
We’ve been lucky here in the Fox Valley in recent years that, probably thanks to careful management by our political leaders, we’ve been relatively free from the plague of official violence against people of color—at least outside of Chicago, where a major clean-up seems now finally underway. As the nation observes African American History Month, it will benefit everyone to take a look back and remember that we’ve all got a stake in the future of our country in general and Kendall County in particular–no matter what the color of our skin is.