The treatment of Black Americans is once again big news as much of the nation has apparently decided they’re dissatisfied with how law enforcement treats people of color.
The senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of a veteran Minneapolis police officer, recorded on video by a young bystander has led to weeks of demonstrations, some initial violence, and quite a bit of introspection. The latest twist in the on-going story is the announced aim by the Minneapolis City Council to disband and completely reconfigure the city’s law enforcement agency in an effort to rid police ranks of those who can’t be trusted to wield authority.
That seems like a drastic situation, but it’s far from unprecedented. Camden, NJ successfully did the same thing a few years ago, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in crime. And Kalamazoo, Michigan essentially did the same by disbanding their police and fire departments and then reconstituting them as a single public safety department, reportedly with good results.
I wonder if those who won the Civil War—which more accurately ought to be called the War Against Treason in Defense of Slavery—thought we’d still be fighting the battle to assure equal treatment under the law for people of color more than a century and a half after Robert Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant in 1865 to end the war.
The struggle to end slavery had been on-going for many years before the Civil War began. After the nation’s founding following the Revolutionary War, northern states gradually outlawed or otherwise discouraged slavery. Anti-slavery societies were established to fight the institution all over the North. Abolitionists fought against a continual campaign by Southern states to protect and expand slavery into new territories as the nation expanded to the west. Part of that fight was to encourage slaves to escape their masters and head north, assisted by members of the Underground Railway—a network of anti-slavery advocates who hid, supported, and helped enslaved persons flee.
We’ve been led to believe that during the pre-Civil War era, if escaped slaves could just get north of the Ohio River or east of the Mississippi and into states like Ohio or Illinois, they were pretty much home free. But that’s far from the truth.
Granted, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were “free” states, but that didn’t mean that Blacks were welcomed—or even tolerated. In fact, racism and anti-slave sentiment were strong partners during that era, especially here in Illinois where a pro-slavery state constitution was nearly approved in the 1820s.
Actually, from the Black Codes of the early 19th Century to the largely unwritten “Sundown Laws” of the 20th Century, the history of race relations in Illinois has always been fraught with conflicting views and actions.
In accord with the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the new states formed from the old Northwest Territory—the region north and west of the Ohio River—were to be admitted to the Union as free, and not slave, states.
Illinois was formally admitted as a state of the Union in December 1818, the bicentennial of which we celebrated a couple years ago. But while slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance, that didn’t result in the new state being slave-free.
First of all, Illinois’ French inhabitants, a colonial remnant from the era before 1765 when the British prevailed in the French and Indian War, were allowed to keep their slaves, which created a significant legal loophole right off the bat. Further, state law permitted indentured servitude, meaning slave owners could bring their chattel property into Illinois as long as the owners engaged in the legal fiction of classifying their slaves as indentured servants.
In 1818 when it became clear Congress was going to establish the State of Illinois, elections were held and the first General Assembly began meeting on October 4, the session lasting until March 31, 1819. During that first General Assembly, one of the major pieces of legislation passed was the state’s first Black Code, a remarkably restrictive piece of legislation. In fact, Illinois’ restrictions on people of color were some of the toughest in the nation, North or South. Under the new law, black residents of Illinois were prohibited from voting, testifying in court, or even bringing suit against whites. They were further prohibited from gathering in groups of three or more without risk of being jailed or flogged. Finally, they were prohibited from serving in the militia and so were denied their Second Amendment right to own or bear arms.
It was made mandatory for blacks living in Illinois to obtain and carry a Certificate of Freedom with them at all times. Otherwise, they were assumed to be escaped slaves by default and were liable for arrest.
The new Illinois constitution also allowed unlimited indentured servitude—which was slavery in all but name—at the salt mines in southern Illinois, one of the new state government’s main sources of revenue.
At that time, most of the state’s residents had arrived by emigrating from the South, and most of the early state officials were southerners who were former—and sometimes current—slave owners. As a result, almost immediately after statehood, pro-slavery forces began militating for a new state constitutional convention at which they planned to write and pass a pro-slavery constitution. In 1822, the statewide referendum to do just that failed by a fairly substantial margin, but in response and as a sop to the state’s large pro-slavery faction, a series of even more restrictive Black Codes were adopted.
For instance, an 1829 addition to the Black Codes required all free Black Illinois residents to register at their county seat. They were also required to register a certificate of freedom from the state in which they had previously lived. Further, each free Black, no matter their age, was required to post a $1,000 bond to cover any future costs should they become indigent or break the law. In today’s dollars, that was requiring a $25,000 cash bond, something that very few Black families could afford for even one person, let alone every single family member. In practice, most blacks who emigrated to Illinois during that period usually found a friendly white resident who would post the bond for them—something that created nearly insurmountable debt.
As a result of these restrictive laws, most of the Black slaves from south of the Ohio River who fled their owners lived in Illinois illegally, subject to arrest and flogging if caught. The frequent arrival of escapees created an atmosphere of fear in Black communities, especially in southern Illinois where slave catchers from Kentucky and Tennessee had no compunctions about kidnapping even legally free blacks and selling them south of the river. Selling someone down the river wasn’t just a saying back then; it was a real threat. Kidnapping and selling people of color was, in fact, a financially lucrative practice with which state officials either ignored or tacitly supported.
Illinois’ official antipathy towards Black residents resulted in a large and active group of Underground Railroad supporters, who worked to hustle escaped slaves north to Canada where the government was far more welcoming.
It was under these restrictive, racist laws that Kendall County had its first, and last, slave auction. On Christmas Eve, 1844, Mr. McLaughlin, a prominent resident of Bureau County, was on his way to Chicago with three bobsled loads of dressed pork. McLaughlin was driving one of the bobs, his hired man was driving the second, and an African-American was driving the third.
As they traveled northeast on the old Chicago to Ottawa Trail, they passed the farm of John Boyd. Boyd and his son-in-law, Matthew Throckmorton, were working outside and saw the procession pass on the snowy road. The pair, natives of Kentucky and strongly pro-slavery, immediately suspected the black man driving one of the bobsleds was an escaped slave. So they mounted their horses and pursued McLaughlin’s party, catching up to it just as it crossed Hollenback Creek.
Boyd and Throckmorton forced the party to stop, and Throckmorton, in the words of George M. Hollenback, “rushed up to the negro driver, and with a great show of authority said. ‘Come down off that, suh, I want you.’” Hollenback went on to explain, “Throckmorton was a native of Kentucky, and had been a slave driver in his native state, and used to considerable extent, the southern dialect in ordinary conversation.”
Boyd ordered Throckmorton to tie both the black driver and McLaughlin up, but McLaughlin replied that he was a free man and would not stand to be detained, indicating that both he and his hired man would fight for their rights. George Hollenback, who had arrived at the scene by that time with several family members, including his son, George M. Hollenback, vouched for McLaughlin, who he knew, and ordered Boyd and Throckmorton to leave him alone. In the face of this defense, the two former Kentuckians decided to leave well enough alone, and told McLaughlin to go on his way, which he did, probably glad not to have had to use violence to free himself.
The Black man, however, was not so lucky. He could not produce his certificate of freedom (in fact, it’s likely he really was a traveler on the Underground Railroad, heading to Chicago and points north), so Boyd and Throckmorton headed to Newark to find the justice of the peace there, George B. Hollenback (nephew of McLaughlin’s defender, George Hollenback—that area was rife with Hollenbacks at the time). The two former Kentuckians demanded that Justice of the Peace Hollenback take charge of their prisoner, but he refused, claiming ignorance of the relevant law, and instead told the two men to take the man to Kendall County Sheriff James S. Cornell at Yorkville.
Boyd and Throckmorton took their prisoner to the county seat at Yorkville, where Sheriff James Cornell confined him with the intent to sell him to the highest bidder to defray the costs of boarding him.
At the time, abolitionists were considered by many to be far left extremists. While many Illinoisans disliked slavery, most opposition was based more on economic issues arising from the large pool of slave labor in the Southern states. On the other hand, many of the county’s settlers prior to 1844 had come from Northern states, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and, especially, New York. Their views of the evils of slavery put them at odds with settlers, like Boyd and Throckmorton, who had emigrated from Southern states.
The ensuing auction of the unlucky Black man took place on the steps of the original county courthouse, which stood a couple blocks from the present Historic Courthouse in Yorkville. A large crowd gathered, and from various accounts it appeared as if the members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society were well represented. Pro-slavery residents, if they attended at all, were apparently intimidated by the large number of anti-slavery members of the crowd. In the end, the only bidder was Dr. Townsend Seeley, a prominent member of the Anti-Slavery Society (and an undercover member of the Kendall County Underground Railway), who won with a bid of $3. Under terms of the state’s Black Codes, Seeley could put the newly purchased Black man to work to work off the cost of his purchase. Since Illinois was such a hostile place for Black Americans, Seeley came up with an innovative way for the man to work off his debt and escape at the same time.
As Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. Edmund W. Hicks, put it, since Seeley “could put him at any work, he decided to set him traveling toward liberty. The dark man was willing, and biding good-bye to his new acquaintances at the capital of Kendall county, he set out on a successful trip to Canada.”
As if the existing Black Codes weren’t bad enough, the 1853 Black Exclusion Act, sponsored by John A. Logan, later a Civil War general and creator of Memorial Day, was even more draconian and unfair.
So escaping to Illinois created a precarious existence for runaway slaves, but one many enslaved people were willing to chance to gain their freedom. And things didn’t significantly change until the later years of the Civil War.
As the war dragged on, more troops were needed, and eventually the entreaties of prominent northern Blacks and anti-slavery whites persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to authorize enlistment of several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Illinois Governor Richard Yates enthusiastically jumped at the chance to enlist a Black regiment from Illinois, but recruitment was slow as Black Illinoisans pointed out the onerous and unfair restrictions on their freedoms represented by the state’s Black Codes.
In partial response, and bowing to the reality that Black Illinoisans were indeed being armed by the hundreds to fight against southern sedition, the General Assembly repealed the Black Codes early in 1865. But even then, Black residents were not granted the right to vote or most of the other civil rights white residents took for granted. Those were finally won thanks to the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, as well as, two decades later, the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885.
Even so, Yates was able to use promises of future civil rights, as well as monetary bounties to facilitate recruiting for Illinois’ Black infantry regiment, which was mustered into United States service as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. The regiment fought through the later stages of the Civil War, acquitting itself well. It was severely mauled during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, suffering many killed and wounded. Among the wounded was Pvt. Nathan Hughes, who would recover only to get wounded one more time before moving to Kendall County after the war to farm along Minkler Road. Hughes and his 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment comrade Thomas Jefferson, are buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, along with Robert Ridley Smith, a veteran of the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry and Tony Burnett who served as a cook with the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.
Given the roadblocks thrown up in front of them, it is remarkable that so many Black Illinois residents tenaciously fought for the right to honorably serve their nation and their state during the country’s time of such great need.