Many people believe a historical narrative of the “free state” of Illinois as a safe haven for black people in the United States. However, slavery began in what would later become Illinois in 1720. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, but legislation in 1813 prevented free black people from immigrating to the Illinois Territory. In March 1819, the First Illinois General Assembly enacted a system of “Black Laws” limiting the rights of free people of color.
Nonetheless, free African Americans helped build the early history of Madison County. The patriarch of the Singleton family in Collinsville settled in the county before 1815. Robert Crawford came to Pin Oak Township in 1819. By 1850, James Henry Johnson and Samuel Bates achieved prosperity as landowners in Foster Township.
Many African Americans who fought in the segregated Union Army also made their homes in Madison County. Seventy-four black men living in Madison County when war broke out enlisted with Company E of the 29th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Other black veterans settled in Madison County after the war.
The Civil War ended institutionalized slavery, but it did not end institutionalized racism. For example, Illinois public schools didn’t accept African American children until 1874. Early black churches like Salem Baptist, Union Baptist, and Mt. Zion Baptist, filled the gap in Madison County. When the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation requiring public school systems to admit black students, most communities reacted by creating separate public schools for African American children. Two legal battles over the rights of children of color to attend integrated schools in Madison County went to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The five sections of this exhibition feature photographs, illustrations, and documents from the lives of early African American pioneers in Madison County. The exhibition also showcases period artifacts held by the Madison County Historical Society that exemplify the activities and circumstances framing the lives of these early black citizens.
This online exhibition was written and designed by Mary Z. Rose, Assistant Curator at the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library, in consultation with Charlotte E. Johnson, Community Historian and Genealogical Researcher. Mrs. Johnson has shared her extensive research about African American history in Madison County, including digital copies of many archival photographs, with the Madison County Historical Society. Mrs. Johnson also reviewed and edited the text of this online exhibit. The Madison County Historical Society and the staff of the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library are indebted to her for her many generous contributions.
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