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

Black women were critical to all aspects of community life. They helped found church congregations, hosted services in their homes, held fundraisers, created organizations to support schools and benevolent associations, and more. Yet they are often difficult to locate in written records, and for this reason information about their activities in this period is fragmentary.

Women’s roles in Black churches were expansive but also limited. Male A.M.E. leaders, including Bishop William Quinn, refused to license women to preach, but some women preached anyway, receiving varied responses from local congregations.1 Priscilla Baltimore purchased her freedom and that of her family members and then became a crucial figure in the A.M.E. church of Brooklyn, Illinois. Ministers later credited her with planting the A.M.E. church in the Midwest.2

A two page document typed and hand-written on faded paper

A Supper, July 12-13, 1855
A handbill advertisement for a fundraiser benefiting “the Colored Baptist Church” in Alton, Illinois, in the 1850s. Women were essential to the success of fundraising efforts like this one. (Source: Missouri History Museum)

Fundraising was an area where women enjoyed tremendous authority and respect. To build and expand the reach of their churches, they organized celebrations, dinners, and festivals. In Bloomington, Illinois, A.M.E. women produced “a festival” to benefit their minister, Rev. Abram T. Hall.3 In Springfield, the “sisters” of the A.M.E. Church raised money to buy a new stove.4 Churches relied on women’s capacity for fundraising, as historian Martha Jones wrote, but this dependence “did not lead to a critical reconsideration of their authority.”5

Women’s Church Fundraising
Rev. Spencer Donegan and others thank the “ladies of Springfield” in 1859 for helping the women of the African American Methodist church raise money to purchase a stove. (Source: Sangamo Journal, Oct. 24, 1859. Courtesy of Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.)

Black women also used churches as platforms for activism that reached beyond the church itself. Many helped make churches into havens for people attempting to escape from slavery, transforming them into stops on the Underground Railroad.6 As the historian Stacey Robertson wrote, the Underground Railroad relied on women’s labor, including “cooking, cleaning, organizing, and sewing,” both for the fugitives who stayed with them and for their own families.7 Many freedom seekers passed through the village of Brooklyn, Illinois, where Priscilla Baltimore and her neighbors offered them support and shelter inside the town’s small A.M.E. church.8

Education and schools also benefited from African American women’s organizing and fundraising. In Springfield in 1850, the Trustees of the Colored School—“desirous of educating their children”—appointed a committee of women to “solicit donations among our white friends” for a public supper to benefit a school for African American children.9 In 1858, African American women in Alton prepared a “most excellent dinner” to celebrate May Day and the recent opening of the “Colored School” in that city.10


Written by Hope McCaffrey. Edited by Kate Masur.


  1. Martha S. Jones, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 40-44, 108.
  2. “‘Mother’ Baltimore’s Burial,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Dec. 4, 1882.
  3.  “African M. E. Church Festival,” The Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL), Nov. 23, 1859.
  4. No title, Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield), Oct. 24, 1859.
  5. Jones, All Bound Up Together, 66.
  6. Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 3.
  7. Stacey M. Robertson, Hearts Beating for Liberty: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 181.
  8. LaRoche, Free Black Communities, 30.
  9. “Colored School,” Illinois Daily Journal, June 14, 1850.
  10. “Colored School Celebration,” Alton Weekly Courier, May 13, 1858.