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

“We will plant our trees in American soil and repose in the shade thereof.”

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.

1 — Black Life in Antebellum Illinois

The earliest Black residents of Illinois lived near the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, adjacent to the slave states just on the other side of them: Kentucky and Missouri. Black Illinoisans formed lasting communities and built a formidable protest movement, but they also contended with racist laws known as “black laws,” and everyday hostility from white residents.

2 — Foundations of Protest

Black political mobilization began in communities and was shaped by local opportunities and challenges. African American residents of Illinois built churches and schools to bolster their communities, and those institutions became a foundation for abolitionist and civil rights organizing.

3 — Making Black Chicago

In the 1840s and 1850s, Chicago emerged as a center for Black life and activism, for Illinois and for the Midwest as a whole. 

4 — The Illinois Colored Convention of 1853

A repressive new law, passed by the state legislature in winter 1853, galvanized Black Illinoisans to organize their first statewide convention. Illinois leaders pressed Frederick Douglass to call a national convention that summer. Then, in October, delegates from across the state met in Chicago, where they issued a powerful address claiming their rights as citizens and made plans for continuing to fight the Illinois black laws.

5 — Delegates and Their Families

The women and men associated with early Black political organizing in Illinois led fascinating lives. Many were born in slave states and moved to north in search of greater opportunities. On average they were more prosperous than most Black Illinoisans of their era, but their political agenda—repealing the black laws, securing the vote for Black men, and ensuring education for Black children—benefited everyone.

Credits & Acknowledgements

This exhibit is the result of more than two years of planning, teaching, research, writing, and editing. Learn more about the team involved.

Explore the bibliography for this exhibit.