Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice

The hard work of organizing a convention of “colored citizens” of Illinois finally came to fruition on October 6-8, 1853. Thirty-nine delegates came from within the state, with many traveling well over a hundred miles to get there. Visitors also arrived from New York, Michigan, and Indiana.

The convention began on the morning of October 6th, with a call to order by James D. Bonner of Chicago, a leader in Illinois Black activist circles. The delegates elected John Jones, a prominent tailor and political activist, to serve as president. Leaders read notes of greeting and support from white abolitionists, including Horace Mann, education reformer; Gerrit Smith, congressman; and Lewis Tappan, cofounder of the American Missionary Society.

That afternoon, delegates adopted rules for the convention, including the decision “that each session . . . be opened with prayer.”1 Delegates proceeded to hold three sessions every day: morning, afternoon, and evening. At each session, one of the clergymen in attendance began with a prayer.

Various Counties Represented at the 1853 Convention
This map represents the number of delegates sent from various counties to the 1853 Convention. The strongest concentrations came from Cook county, near Chicago, Sangamon County, near Springfield, and Madison and St. Clair Counties, near St. Louis. The number of delegates from each county were as follows: Cook, 20; Edgar & Coles, 1; Jo Daviess, 2; Madison, 4; McLean, 1; Morgan, 2; Peoria, 3; Sangamon, 3; St. Clair, 1; Will, 2. Sources: “A New Map of the Great West” (Detail), 1856, (David Rumsey Map Collection); Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, Newberry Library; Delegate Proceedings of the 1853 Colored Convention.

During the convention, delegates created committees that reflected the principal interests and concerns of Illinois Black activists: education, colonization, agriculture, mechanics, and business. Each committee reported back on the problem under its consideration and proposed recommendations for the convention’s members to consider. 

Issues that dominated the conversation included repeal of the Illinois black laws, the abolition of slavery, and the education of Black children. For example, the education committee reported on “obstacles” to Black children’s education (in particular, the state’s failure to provide it). The committee suggested creating a nine-person board of trustees to oversee the education of Black students in Illinois.2

The convention was sometimes contentious. Delegates unanimously denounced white-led colonization efforts as racist, but they disagreed about whether to support Black-led emigration out of the United States.

Many Black northerners were disillusioned with the treacherous racial environment of the United States and believed they would be better off leaving for places like Canada or Haiti. In an important book published in 1852, Martin Delany had asked African Americans to consider such options, and in 1853 he had called for a convention to discuss the merits of emigration. At the Chicago convention, James D. Bonner and Joseph H. Barquet “ably supported” a resolution that denounced white-led colonization as “wicked attempts of Southern slaveholders and their Northern abettors to force us from our native homes.”3

However, this resolution met opposition from delegates including Rev. Byrd Parker, Henry O. Wagoner, and Spencer Donegan. The exact nature of the disagreement is not clear from the published proceedings, but the convention’s final resolutions suggest that Parker, Wagoner, and Donegan had pushed to condemn not only white-led colonization projects but Black-led emigration initiatives as well.

Warner’s Hall, c. 1868
The building in the center housed Warner’s Hall, where delegates gathered for the 1853 convention in Chicago. (Source: John Carbutt, S.E. Clark and Randolph St.,1865–1875, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Weston J. and Mary M. Naef.)

The convention’s final resolutions made a powerful argument for remaining in the United States and claiming citizenship. All colonization efforts, “originating in whatever motive,” were harmful to Black Americans, the convention declared. The statement denounced Martin Delany by name and insisted that his proposed National Emigration Convention represented a “spirit of disunion” that could “prove fatal to our hopes and aspirations as a people.” Instead, the convention urged: “We will plant our trees in American soil, and repose in the shade thereof.”4

Frederick Douglass’s speech on the evening of Friday, October 7th, was a highlight of the convention. Douglass had arrived in Chicago a bit late, disappointing delegates who had hoped he would be there for the opening day. While in Chicago, Douglass stayed with the Bonner family, and he later lauded Mary Louisa Bonner for her hospitality.5

The details of Douglass’ speech have not been preserved, but according to the convention minutes, his sentiments “were enthusiastically received” by the delegates and members of the audience. The convention’s leaders made Douglass an honorary member of the meeting.6

The convention published a pamphlet that contained its proceedings, resolutions, and an address to the state’s white citizens.

The delegates adopted dozens of resolutions that addressed current conditions and expressed hopes for the future. Here is a list of some of the most notable resolutions. The convention:

  • Opposed all colonization and emigration schemes, including Delany’s call for a National Emigration Convention, which would take place nonetheless the next year.
  • Called for repeal of the 1853 Illinois “Slave Law” and all racially discriminatory laws in the state.
  • Urged African Americans to pool their resources, creating “joint stock companies” as “a practical means to gain wealth.”
  • Condemned slavery as a great sin and called on all “ministers of the gospel” to oppose it.
  • Urged Black Illinoisans to pursue education and uplift of all kinds, in part to “rebuke our oppressors.”
  • Denounced the state for taxing Black residents to pay for public schools while denying Black children access to those schools.
  • Created a board of trustees to take charge of a fund for private education of Black children. (This became the School Fund Association).
  • Approved the creation of an Illinois State Council of African Americans, a subsidiary of the National Council created at the national convention in Rochester in July 1853.


Written by Mikala Stokes and Marquis Taylor. Edited by Kate Masur.


  1. 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, typescript, 56, accessed Aug. 24, 2021, For a good overview of the Illinois Colored Conventions of 1853, 1856, and 1866, see Victoria L. Harrison, “We Are Here Assembled: Illinois Colored Conventions, 1853-1873,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 108, no. 3-4 (fall/winter 2015): 322-346. For rituals and processes at nineteenth-century Black conventions, see Erica L. Ball, “Performing Politics, Creating Community: Antebellum Black Conventions as Political Rituals,” in in eds. P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Lynn Patterson, The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
  2. Proceedings, 59.
  3. Proceedings, 58.
  4. Proceedings, 60.
  5. “Convention of Colored People in Illinois,” Anti-Slavery Bugle, Nov. 19, 1853. Women regularly provided food and lodging to convention delegates. See Psyche Williams-Forson, “Where Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay? Interpreting the Material Culture of Black Women’s Domesticity in the Context of the Colored Conventions,” in Foreman, Casey, and Patterson, Colored Conventions Movement.
  6. Proceedings, 57.