In the history of Kendall County written in 1914, one of the writers spoke with pride about the breadth of the county’s ethnic heritage.From the perspective and mindset of someone writing in 1914, the county’s ethnic make-up probably did seem pretty broad. He mentioned, in particular, those of English, Scottish, German, and Welsh descent, plus some Irish and Scandinavians as well as those who could trace their families back to the French Canadians frontiersmen who once lived here and other areas throughout northern Illinois.
To modern sensibilities, though, that doesn’t sound like much of an ethnic mix at all.
Ku Klux Klan in its modern, second incarnation wasn’t strong yet—it would be another year before it would be officially reconstituted by William J. Simmons in 1915 atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain and begin sowing hatred of anyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon protestant. In addition, the Red Scares of the years after World War I had yet to get their start, fueled to a fair extent by the Klan’s racial and religious bigotry.
Bigotry towards ethnic groups, in fact, was common and growing, especially as the county’s white European, Canadian, and other settlers began enjoying their second, and sometimes third, generations in the U.S.
Two other ethnic groups—African Americans and Hispanics—weren’t even mentioned in that 1914 county history. During that era, there weren’t many of either group in Kendall County—but there were some—and those who were here kept a low profile, as did others across the nation.
But despite their lack of recognition, Kendall County did have an African American population in 1914, and, in fact, had had one since the early 1830s.
The first Blacks who emigrated to Kendall County had no say in whether they wanted come or not. In the summer of 1833, a group of three families emigrated to Kendall County from Camden, S.C. and settled on the north side of Hollenback’s Grove in today’s Big Grove Township. When they left North Carolina, the families of R.W. Carns, J.S. Murray, and E. Dyal decided to take two ‘former’ slaves with them. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, notes that the Carns family brought a Black woman named Dinah, and the Murray family brought a woman named Silvie with them from South Carolina.
Noted Hicks, “They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”
Whether, as Hicks reports, they were former slaves is debatable, even doubtful. It’s also extremely unlikely they had any choice about whether to become pioneers on the Illinois frontier.
Blacks were rare enough to create interest—and sometimes consternation among some—in the years leading up to the Civil War. By that time, Illinois had passed some of the strictest anti-Black laws—called the Black Codes—of any state in the union. In 1844, another former Carolinian, M.O. Throckmorton and his father-in-law, William Boyd, seized an African American who was riding on a sleigh-load of dressed pork being hauled to Chicago by a resident of Bureau County named McLaughlin. Insisting the fellow was an escaped slave, Throckmorton and Boyd hauled the Black man to Yorkville where he was turned over to Sheriff James. S. Cornell. Cornell, without much choice in the matter due to existing state and federal law, reluctantly put the unfortunate Black man up for sale at auction at the courthouse in Yorkville. But no bids were forthcoming, probably because most of the crowd were grim-faced members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society. Eventually, one of the society members made the winning bid of $1, and the former prisoner was sent on his way to Chicago, and presumably on to Canada and freedom.
From the 1830s to the 1860s, a tiny number of Blacks made Kendall County their home. But in the years after the Civil War, a substantial influx of African American farmers arrived from the former Southern slave states and settled in the county, mostly in an area a few miles south of Oswego.
One of the Black men who arrived in the county after the war was Anthony “Tony” Burnett, who had been liberated by the 4th Illinois Cavalry during the war. Burnett joined the regiment’s Company C as a cook and later returned to Oswego with Lt. Robert Jolly where he enjoyed a close relationship with the family. Burnett is buried in the Jolly family plot at the Oswego Township Cemetery with a U.S. Government-issued tombstone that reads, “Cook, 4th Illinois Cavalry, Co. C.”
Nathan Hughes, a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, which had been recruited in Illinois, and Robert Ridley Smith, who served in the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, both moved to the Oswego area after the war. Hughes worked a small farm south of Oswego on Minkler Road. He also joined the Yorkville Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the only Black county resident to do so, and where he served in various offices.
A number of other Black farming families also settled in the Minkler Road area where they worked small acreages. Their children were educated in the same one-room country school their White neighbors attended, without comment, suggesting the Jim Crow bigotry that was raging in the South had yet to reach this far north. Not that it wasn’t on the way.
By the 1920s, there were formal Klan organizations in Kendall County and the surrounding area. On June 7, 1922, the Kendall County Record reported: “The Ku Klux Klan initiated 2,000 candidates near Plainfield Saturday night. It is said some 25,000 members from Chicago and adjoining cities were present. The KKK is making a big stir in politics.”
In February 1923, the Record noted that a 75-member Klan organization had been established in Sandwich, and then on June 4, 1924 reported from Yorkville that “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town Friday. It was a perfect day for the outing and several thousand visitors took advantage of the day to visit Yorkville, the beauty spot of the Fox, and take part in the events of the organization.”
But that was all in the future. In the late years of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, Black families were considered part of the community. Robert Ridley Smith raised his family in Oswego, and they became well-known and respected members of the town. Smith was for many years the janitor at Oswego’s large school building, and, a combat veteran of the Civil War, he didn’t seem at all shy of occasionally reminding area residents that Black Americans had a history worth acknowledging.
For instance, in the Record’s April 17, 1907 edition, the paper’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Bob Smith, the colored janitor of the schoolhouse, had some grave humor out of the school Monday. He raised the flag on the schoolhouse at half mast; all wanted to know what it meant, but he told them they must guess it. Finally the principal came along and he too wanted to know what Bob meant by it, and then Bob replied that the day was the anniversary of the death of Lincoln and that it was appropriate for a negro to show his mournfulness.”
Smith’s son, Ferdinand, was a racial pioneer. The June 17, 1903 Record reported: “Ferdinand Smith holds the distinction of being the first black person to be graduated from High School in Kendall County. He was one of the graduates of the [Oswego High School] Class of fifteen who graduated on June 1, 1903.” Smith’s graduation address was titled “Power to Meet Our Wants.”
The next year, the Record reported Ferdinand’s sister Mary’s graduation, and in 1906 noted their sister Frances was among the graduates: “To Miss [Frances] Smith fell the task [of representing the community’s African Americans] on this occasion and she did the duty assigned her in a dignified and ladylike manner, showing no symptoms of embarrassment whatever. Her paper was on ‘Afro-American Progress.’”
The Smith family was athletically inclined as well. A photo of the 1907 Oswego High School baseball team shows yet another Smith sibling, Robert, standing proudly with the rest of the team, fielder’s glove in hand.
The picture is startling for the casual refusal of Oswego’s public high school to participate in a shameful era of U.S. sports history. At the time Robert was happily playing high school ball in Oswego against other area schools, his fellow African-Americans were banned from playing in the Major Leagues.
Today, Kendall County is more ethnically diverse than at any time in its history, with people from all over the world living, working, shopping, and sending their kids to school here. But it is worthwhile to understand, especially during Black History Month, that it is the extent, not the diversity itself, that is new.