Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice
Foundations of Protest
Black residents of Illinois fought hard for schools for their children. Taxpayer-funded public schools were slow to get off the ground, and early state legislation made clear that white students would receive priority. In 1825, the legislature called for a property tax to fund schools that would be “free to every class of white citizens.” Ten years later, the legislature required school funds to be divided among districts according to the number of white children under age twenty-one.1
Black communities responded in part by establishing independent schools. Black churches frequently doubled as schoolhouses. In 1848, for instance, African Americans in Jacksonville opened a school that provided lessons to seventeen students between the ages of six and twenty-six. By 1850 in Sangamon County, home to the state capital of Springfield, African Americans had organized a school, and a women’s committee was soliciting donations from the white community.2
African American Schools in Antebellum Illinois
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The Wood River Association (WRA), an organization of Black Baptist churches, organized several schools. Thomas Johnson, the son of Wood River Baptist leader James Henry Johnson, initially taught children in the basement of a private home and then, beginning in 1855, in Salem Baptist Church near Alton. Robert J. Robinson taught a school for thirty-one students in Alton, beginning in 1858 when the city council, responding to Black demands, finally established a taxpayer-funded school for Black children. Robinson’s school was in the basement of Union Baptist Church, which stood on a hill over the town.3
The leadership of the WRA believed Illinois residents should do more to support the education of Black children. In 1852 the organization issued a public appeal to “the Generous People of our State.” They requested donations of money, land, or other property to support independent Black schools and ensure that students who could not afford to pay tuition could attend school for free. Representing the WRA, Robinson traveled the state to promote this vision for the education of Black children who were mostly denied access to public schools.4
In some areas, Black and white children did attend school together. An early public school in Alton, incorporated by the state government in 1821, was supposed to serve “every child of suitable age.” In Jersey County, the Hamilton Primary School, established in 1840 by former slaveowner Silas Hamilton, was a Christian school and open to “all classes of people.” Black and white children alike also attended the Wood School, built in 1859 in rural Wood Station.5
Black Illinoisans worked hard to establish schools for their children. By the early 1850s, many were also fighting for justice in school financing.
Written by Hope McCaffrey. Edited by Kate Masur.
- Paul Everett Belting, The Development of the Free Public High School in Illinois to 1860 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society Journal, 1919), 98; Robert McCaul, The Black Struggle for Public Schooling in Nineteenth-Century Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 10.
- “Examination of the Colored School in Jacksonville, Illinois,” National Era (Washington, DC), Sept. 14, 1848; Illinois Daily Journal (Springfield), June 14, 1850.
- “The Colored School, Mr. John Robinson, Teacher,” Alton Weekly Courier, June 17, 1858; Madison County Historical Society, “School Segregation in Nineteenth-Century Madison County,” accessed Aug. 26, 2021, https://madcohistory.org/online-exhibits/black-history-in-madison-county-before-1900/school-segregation-in-19th-century-madison-county/
- “H.O.W. to Douglas,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, May 13, 1853.
- N. Dwight Harris, The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of the Slavery Agitation in that State (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1904), 230-31; “School Segregation in Nineteenth-Century Madison County.”