Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice
The Illinois Colored Convention of 1853
After the Convention
Illinois Black activists faced new challenges after the convention. They had to present the convention’s proceedings to white and Black audiences, confront dissent within their own ranks, and try to implement the ideas and proposals they had set forth.
Chicago-based papers like the Western Citizen and Chicago Tribune covered the convention. But editorialists did not always share delegates’ commitment to advancing Black interests. The Chicago Tribune, for example, called the group’s firm anti-colonization stance a “fatal error” and regretted that the delegates did not see colonization in a “more favorable light.”1
The Tribune did print the convention’s forthright “Address to the People of the State of Illinois.” There, the convention argued that Black Illinoisans were “Americans by birth” and that they deserved full access to the promises of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What did they want from their white neighbors? “We ask only for even handed Justice,” the delegates wrote. They asked white Illinoisans to “instruct your Legislators” to repeal the black laws, and they called on “the Press… to use its great power and influence in behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden of Illinois… and of the country in general.”2
Martin Delany, the Pittsburgh-based physician and activist, was frustrated by the convention’s decision to denounce not only white-led colonization, but also Black-led emigration out of the United States. In a letter published in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Delany complained about the convention’s curt rejection of his emigration efforts.3 Delany was not alone in his desire to continue the discussion. The question of emigration remained alive in Illinois and elsewhere.
The Western Citizen, a Chicago-based abolitionist paper, criticized other Chicago newspapers for not devoting enough attention to the convention. (Source: “The Press of Chicago and Mr. Douglass’ Meetings,” Western Citizen, Oct. 18, 1853. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.)
Martin Delany, pre-1885
Martin Delany continued to push African Americans to consider emigration, despite the Chicago convention’s denunciations. (Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and West Virginia University Libraries.)
Yet many delegates left the convention excited for what they could accomplish in Illinois. Weeks later, John Jones informed Frederick Douglass that “activity among the colored men and women of Illinois” was changing the state’s politics from “center to circumference.” That fall, Black Chicagoans also celebrated the consecration of the new Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church. Passage of the repressive “Slave Law” in February had spurred fundraising for the new building, which was described as “large and commodious.”4
Illinois activists planned to advance the work of the National Council of Colored Men, an organization that emerged from the summer 1853 Rochester convention. At the Chicago convention, delegates had decided to create an Illinois State Council that would serve as a subsidiary of the National Council, endowing the State Council with power to “to issue calls for State Conventions annually.” John Jones later told Frederick Douglass that he hoped the State Council, galvanized by the “whirlpool of the great Anti-Slavery flood,” would effectively oppose the unjust “black laws and Fugitive Slave Laws.”5
Members of the State Council met for two days in January 1854 to plan their work and create a constitution for the organization. Attendees supported lobbying the state government for the Black men’s right to vote. Continuing the work of the October convention, the State Council created four committees: education, agriculture, mechanics, and statistics.6
When it came time to write a constitution, Henry O. Wagoner advocated a version that permitted women to vote. Byrd Parker strongly opposed it. According to Richard H. Cain, who was also present, Parker felt “the question of Women’s Rights was new and novel,” and he did not want the organization “to be the first to set such an example.”
Wagoner insisted that “there were many existing wrongs in the world, which had the precedent of two thousand years; and he thought they were none the less wrong on that account.” He wanted “to extend all the God-given rights to the whole human family.” Unfortunately, we do not know what the State Council decided to do about women’s rights; an example of its constitution has not survived.7
Henry O. Wagoner wanted the State Council to permit women to vote in its proceedings. (Source: Henry O. Wagoner, 1880-1890. History Colorado. Object ID: 89.451.3862; CHS Scan # 10054364.)
By March of 1854, at least one Illinoisan felt that both the State Council and the National Council were moving too slowly. Writing under the pseudonym “BRICK,” a correspondent to Frederick Douglass’ Paper suggested that “the people of our State—and I fear of the West generally—are becoming greatly dissatisfied with the tardy operations” of those organizations.8
Building institutions and creating a movement was difficult. James D. Bonner and John Jones remained engaged at both the state and national levels. At a meeting in New York in May 1855, the National Council endorsed the creation of an industrial training school for Black children, spurred by the belief that training in the skilled trades was necessary for racial uplift. Bonner and Jones were members of the six-person committee appointed to develop the industrial school.9
Within Illinois, working across the state’s large distances proved challenging. Cook County-based William Johnson, secretary of the School Fund Association, reported difficulties coordinating with the association’s lead agent, who was based in southern Illinois. By 1856, it was also evident that efforts to raise funds for private schools were not working very well; the need for public education had only become more clear.10
The state’s Black residents continued to fight against the black laws and for full citizenship. At a statewide convention in 1856 they formed a “Repeal Association” to coordinate petitions to the legislature across the entire state.11
Finally, on February 7, 1865, after continued pressure by Black Illinoisans and their white allies, the state legislature repealed the infamous black laws. The Civil War was coming to an end. Thousands of Black men had fought to destroy slavery and preserve the Union, including Illinois-based activists H. Ford Douglas and Joseph Barquet. Chicago Black women including Sattira Douglas and Mary Richardson Jones had supported emancipation and the war effort by organizing to raise funds and collect donations for freedpeople and for Black soldiers and their families.
Black Chicagoans had intensified their push for repeal at the beginning of the legislative session. Supported by funds raised in the Black community, John Jones carried to Springfield a petition bearing 11,000 signatures. According to one report, he “took his stand at the door [of the capitol] morn, noon, and evening . . . . The petition was presented, lobby-work began,” and finally, after extensive debate, the House and Senate voted for repeal.12
Black residents of Springfield, Alton, and Chicago greeted repeal of the infamous black laws with public celebrations that included speeches and the ceremonial firing of cannons. Yet work remained, particularly because Black men still did not have the right to vote in Illinois.13
In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forced Illinois and other northern states to permit Black men to vote. The following year, John Jones was elected Cook County commissioner, becoming Chicago’s first Black elected official and probably the first in the entire state.14
Written by Mikala Stokes and Marquis Taylor. Edited by Kate Masur.
- “Local Matters,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 11, 1853; “The Press of Chicago and Mr. Douglass’ Meetings,” Western Citizen, Oct. 18, 1853.
- “Address of the Colored State Convention to the People of the State Illinois,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 14, 1853. For the convention minutes and address see “Proceedings of the First Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois, Convened at the City of Chicago, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, October 6th, 7th and 8th, 1853,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed Nov. 18, 2021, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/261.
- “Illinois Convention,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Nov. 18, 1853.
- “African Methodist Church,” Chicago Daily Journal, Nov. 19, 1853.
- “Proceedings of the First Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois,” typescript, 60; “Chicago,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Nov. 18, 1853. See also Roger D. Bridges, “Antebellum Struggle for Citizenship,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 108, no. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 2015): 296-321.
- “Letter from H.O. Wagoner,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 21, 1854.
- “Proceedings of the Illinois State Council” [letter of R. H. Cain], Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 7, 1854.
- “Communicated,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, March 31, 1854.
- “Industrial College,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, May 25, 1855.
- “Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois, held in the city of Alton, Nov. 13th, 14th and 15th, 1856,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed Nov. 17, 2021, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/262, 12-13.
- “Proceedings of the State Convention . . . held in the city of Alton,” 13-14.
- “Letter from Chicago,” Christian Recorder, Feb. 25, 1865.
- “Letter from Chicago”; “Letter from Springfield, Ills.,” Christian Recorder, Feb. 18, 1865; “Jubilee Over the Repeal of the Black Laws,” Christian Recorder, March 4, 1865.
- Charles A. Gliozzo, “John Jones: A Study of a Black Chicagoan,” Illinois Historical Journal 80 (Autumn 1987), 179.