Slavery and the Law in Illinois, 1720-1865
Slavery began in what would later become Illinois in 1720. Philippe Francois Renault left France for reputed gold and silver mines in Upper Louisiana (which included the future states of Illinois and Missouri). Along the way he stopped in Saint-Domingue and bought 500 slaves to work the mines.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory. But current slaveholders were “grandfathered in” and exempted from the new law. In 1803, the Indiana Territory systemized long-term indentures. This skirted the law and effectively reinstituted slavery in what would later become the state of Illinois.
Legislation in 1813 prevented free black people from immigrating to the Illinois Territory. As a result, free African Americans already living in Illinois had to register with the county clerk.
There were 847 indentured servants/slaves, 326 free black people, and 29,628 white people living in Illinois when the territory became a state in December 1818. The new state prohibited slavery within its boundaries. The following March, the First Illinois General Assembly enacted a system of “Black Laws” limiting the rights of free people of color. Section 1 of the “Black Laws” required all free people of color moving to Illinois to register with the county clerk and provide certified proof of their freedom.
Three books commonly known as “Emancipation Registers” record the registration of free people of color in Madison County 1830-1860 as required by law. The original volume 1 is titled Negro Book and is part of the Madison County Historical Society’s collection housed in the Madison County Archival Library.
The affidavit below appears in volume 3 of the Madison County registers. In it, Singleton’s father swears that he and his wife Betsey are free people of color and that James Singleton Jr. is their son, born free in St. Clair County. He then gives a physical description of his 21-year-old son as required by the registration process. (James Singleton Jr.’s grandfather James Suggs Singleton was required to register with the county over thirty years earlier, in 1815.)
In addition to making it very difficult for free African Americans to remain in or move to Illinois, the “Black Laws” prohibited slaveholders from freeing their slaves. Violators incurred a $1,000 penalty.
Despite these barriers, Illinois’s free black population grew tenfold by 1840. The white population exploded to sixteen times its initial size at statehood. The 1840 census also counted 331 slaves living in the “free state” of Illinois. Delegates adopted a new constitution in 1848 that required legislation prohibiting free people of color from immigrating to the state. The General Assembly passed the Black Exclusion Law in 1853.
James Henry Johnson, an early settler of Foster Township and a delegate for Madison County at the Illinois State Convention of Colored Citizens, worked to repeal the “Black Laws.” It finally happened in 1865. The thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution became a law in 1865. The amendment prohibited slavery nationwide. Unfortunately Johnson died in 1863 and didn’t live to see it.
The 1825-1857 Madison County Courthouse featured this wooden ballot box. Initially constructed with donated materials and funded by donations, the building was nicknamed “Donation Courthouse.” The brick structure had dirt floors and a second story accessibly only by ladder.
The “Donation Courthouse” is shown in the center of this 1882 illustration. The single-story building to the left is the clerk’s office. The building to the right is the county jail. From History of Madison County, Illinois, plate facing p. 344. The clerk’s office was later repurposed as Lincoln School, a racially segregated school for African American children in Edwardsville.
Generations of Pride: African-Americans in Illinois: A Selected Chronology. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Illinois Association of Museums, 1995.
History of Madison County, Illinois. Edwardsville: W.R. Brink & Co., 1882. Available at the Madison County Archival Library. Also available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiuo.ark:/13960/t48p6410n
Illinois African-American Resource Guide. Illinois State Library Special Report Series 6, no. 2 (Fall 1999).
Illinois Census Returns, 1810, 1818. Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library 24, Statistical Series 2. Edited, with introduction and notes by Margaret Cross Norton. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1935. Available online at the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/illinoiscensusre24marg/page/n9
James H. Johnson probate documents. Accessed December 27, 2018. https://www.ancestry.com/ (subscription required).
Johnson, Charlotte. African Americans in Madison County, Illinois. Collection prepared for the staff at the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library. 2001. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Laws Passed by the First General Assembly, of the State of Illinois, at Their Second Session, Held at Kaskaskia, 1819. Kaskaskia: Published by authority, 1819. Available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.35112103448090
Madison County Illinois Circuit Court CONTENTdm Website. Slave Emancipation Register, 1820-1860. Accessed January 3, 2019. http://madisoncountycircuitclerk.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15918coll2 Volume 1 available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Meites, Jerome B. “The 1847 Illinois Constitutional Convention and Persons of Color.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, v. 108, no. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 2015). Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Perkins, James H. Annals of the West: Embracing a Concise Account of Principal Events, which Have Occurred in the Western States and Territories, from the Discovery of the Mississippi Valley to the Year Eighteen Hundred and Fifty. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. by J.M. Peck. St. Louis: James R. Albach, 1850. Available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiuo.ark:/13960/t1zc7th0v
The Single Tree: Singleton Reunion, St. Louis, Mo. Aug. 11, 1990. Manuscript. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Accessed January 3, 2019. http://www.slavevoyages.org/
United States census records and other public records.
Westerhold, Mary T. and the Madison County Historical Society. Images of American: Madison County. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2013. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.