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

If you are not allowed to vote, how would you exercise your political voice and get public policies changed?  In Illinois, only white men were allowed to vote. 

Black communities found other ways of making their voices heard in state politics. Sending petitions to the state legislature in Springfield could be effective. According to tradition, everyone — regardless of race, sex, or status — had a right to petition. Legislators were obliged at least to accept those petitions, and petitions could result in committee reports that led to real change. 

Between 1853 and 1855, African Americans sent at least three school-related petitions to the Illinois legislature. 

  • In January 1853, Presley L. Donegan (brother of Spencer Donegan) and his allies in Springfield requested that Black citizens be exempt from the school tax. Why should they pay into a public fund from which their children could not benefit? They could save their tax money and apply it to their private schools for Black children.
  • That same month, the Wood River Association requested that the state refund the money that African Americans had paid to the school fund. The state legislature seems to have ignored these petitions.
  • Two years later, Black and white residents of Madison County asked the legislature to appropriate school funds specifically for Black education. 

The three petitions represented three different ways to organize and pay for schools for Black children. Together, they also reflected the importance of education to Black Illinoisans.1

Students at Wood School in Foster Township, Illinois, circa 1898
Photograph of the 1898 class of the integrated Wood School in Foster Township, Illinois. The one-room Wood School opened in 1859 and began teaching Black and white students. (Source: Courtesy of Madison County Historical Society)

Lincoln School in Edwardsville, Illinois, circa 1911
A photograph of the Lincoln School, a Black public school in Edwardsville, Illinois, in 1911. (Source: Courtesy of Madison County Historical Society)

In 1855, the state legislature finally changed course. In a law known as Section 84 (later Section 80), the government declared that it would return school taxes paid by Black residents so they could establish their own schools for Black children.2

Still, Black Illinoisans faced many inequities in access to education. The state distributed public school funds in proportion to the number of white students in the district, not according to the amount the district paid in taxes. This meant that poorer white communities could benefit from contributions made by wealthier white communities. By contrast, Black children had to rely on the resources of their own communities, whose members faced disadvantages of poverty and discrimination.3

Meanwhile, the state continued to promise free education to white children only, casting Black children as marginal and non-citizens. 

Yet the new law was also a victory. Responding to pressure from African Americans, the Illinois government had finally acknowledged the injustice of collecting school taxes from Black residents but excluding them from the benefits of the public schools.


Written by Christina Melehy. Edited by Kate Masur.


  1. Robert McCaul, The Black Struggle for Public Schooling in Nineteenth-Century Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 23-26.
  2. McCaul, Black Struggle for Public Schooling, 29-31.
  3. McCaul, Black Struggle for Public Schooling, 29-30.