Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice
Black Life in Antebellum Illinois
Patterns of Black Settlement
Despite the state’s hostile policies, Black people migrated into Illinois and worked to make homes in their new surroundings. They concentrated in the southern and western regions of the state, closest to the slave states from which many had emigrated.1
Illinois Free Black Settlement in 1850 and Enslaved U.S. Population
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Interactive map showing patterns of free Black settlement in Illinois in 1850, and the enslaved Black population within the United States in the same year. Data: U.S. Census, IPUMS NHGIS.
Early Black migrants often settled near the rivers that defined the state’s borders: the Wabash to the east, the Ohio to the south, and the Mississippi to the west. At first, the state’s largest concentration of African Americans was in far southeastern Gallatin County, near the salt mines of Shawneetown. Enslaved people labored in the salt mines, and until 1825, the mines’ owners were exempt from the state’s constitutional ban on slavery.2
As the state’s Black population continued to grow, many migrants arrived from nearby slave states like Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia (including present-day West Virginia), though some came from as far away as the Carolinas.3 At first they lived primarily in the state’s southern third, sometimes called “Egypt” because of the name of its major town, Cairo, which stood at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.4
Southern Illinois became home to independent African American settlements such as Brooklyn, right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, that became refuges for freedom-seekers from the slave states.5
Images of Black Illinois
The following cities represent places in Illinois with the highest concentrations of African American residents in the nineteenth century. Click through the tabs to see images of each city.
In the 1840s and 1850s the state’s Black population remained small, both relative to the white population and compared with the other northern border states of Indiana and Ohio. In 1850, the U.S. Census counted 5,436 Black people in Illinois, just 0.6% of the total. In comparison, the Black population of Indiana was more than twice as large, at 11,262, while in Ohio it was even larger, at 25,279. In both of those states, African Americans were about 1% of the population.6
While many Black Illinoisans were farmers living in rural areas, some gathered in cities and towns. In 1850, five towns had populations of one hundred or more African Americans: Springfield, Alton, Jacksonville, Quincy, and Chicago.
Statistics alone, however, tell us little about the lives people led and the communities they constructed with family members, friends, and neighbors. Black Illinoisans built institutions, started families, and cultivated ties to the land, laying the foundation for a movement for racial justice.
Written by Emiliano Aguilar; assistance with graphics and layout by Mikala Stokes. Edited by Kate Masur.
- Charles R. Foy and Michael I. Bradley, “The African American Community in Brushy Fork, Illinois, 1818-1861,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 112, no. 2 (Summer, 2019), 130.
- Foy and Bradley, “African American Community in Brushy Fork,” 131; Jacqueline Yvonne Blackmore, “African Americans and Race Relations in Gallatin County, Illinois from the Eighteenth Century to 1870” (PhD diss., Northern Illinois University, 1996), 17.
- James Gregory, America’s Great Migrations Project, accessed Aug. 24, 2021, https://depts.washington.edu/moving1/Illinois.shtml.
- Foy and Bradley, “African American Community,” 131.
- Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 21-56.
- J. D. B. DeBow, Statistical View of the United States, 4 (Washington: B. Tucker, 1854), 63, accessed Aug. 24, 2021, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AJB5449.0001.001/63?rgn=full+text;view=image.