Abolitionism in Chicago
This exhibit recounts the history of Chicago’s first Black generation as told through the Chicago History Museum’s collections. Building a home in a new place was not the only challenge this first generation of Black residents faced. Chicago’s African American activists engaged in many forms of protest and organizing. They actively fought Illinois's racist anti-Black laws and challenged the institution of slavery at every opportunity. Abolitionist organizing took the form of robust Underground Railroad activity and systematic resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law. By the 1850s, these early Black settlers had transformed Chicago into a hub of abolitionism. Subsequent generations continued this campaign and worked to preserve the stories of those who came before them.
A Note on Language
"Historical material often contains violent acts, offensive language, or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture and language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record. The Chicago History Museum has an institution-wide initiative to critically consider the language used to describe people and materials, and we invite you to read more about our related projects at www.chicagohistory.org/critical-cataloging/.
Resisting the Fugitive Slave Law
As part of the Compromise of 1850, the US Congress passed the most stringent iteration yet of fugitive slave legislation. The aggressive Fugitive Slave Act made it not only illegal to resist the return of an enslaved person to their enslaver, but also made it illegal to aid any person seeking to escape slavery. Black activists and white abolitionists in Illinois reacted to the 1850 law with outrage. The Chicago Common Council refused to cooperate with the law, as Black abolitionists worked to flout any slave catcher who entered the city.
Honorable John Jones (c. 1882) by Mosher & BaldwinChicago History Museum
“I prefer calling it an act, and not a Law,” wrote African American activist Henry O. Wagoner in 1852. “Surely, it was a foolish act in the slaveholders, but a fortunate one, I think, for us, for I verily believe it will work out a far more exceeding and external weight of glory to our cause.” Like John Jones, Wagoner was born in a slave state then moved to Chicago in 1846. He worked tirelessly on the Underground Railroad and was involved in the movement for equal rights.
The African American community began to hold mass meetings throughout Chicago in response to the Fugitive Slave Law. Black leaders, including John Jones, organized a vigilance committee at these meetings for the “colored citizens” of Chicago. This resistance to this new law often centered on church networks, namely Quinn Chapel AME and Zoar Baptist.
Meeting of the Committee of Fugitive Slave Relief (1850-11-11) by Committee of Fugitive Slave ReliefChicago History Museum
In fall 1850, Chicago abolitionists gathered to form a relief society for fugitives heading to Canada to escape enslavement. At their November 11 meeting, the white abolitionist group led by Zebina Eastman joined with leaders of the Black activist community. Black activists John Jones, Lewis Isbell, and William Johnson were added to the committee.
Galena and Chicago Union Railroad Station (c. 1849)Chicago History Museum
In October 1850, Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star, reported that a group of African Americans helped a fugitive onto a Canada-bound train and then chased the pursuing slave hunters out of Chicago.
The enslavers’ departure was “hastened by a threat of ‘tar and feathers’ from the excited colored population, who are up in arms, and nightly, as well as daily, on the watch for white gentlemen with sallow complexions and broad rimmed hats.”
Portrait of Frederick Douglass by unknownChicago History Museum
Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and activist of worldwide fame, had strong ties to Chicago through his friends who lived there and the national network of organizing they developed together. Henry O. Wagoner, John Jones, and Mary Richardson Jones were some of his closest Chicago-based friends and allies. Douglass would stay with these comrades when he came to the city and frequently corresponded with them, both in his newspapers and privately.
John Brown Bible inscription (1859-12) by John BrownChicago History Museum
The Jones’ home became a space for abolitionist meeting and organizing, where they discussed slavery, abolitionist strategy, family, and plans for fugitive people, and was a well-known respite for those escaping slavery. The white abolitionist (and soon to be martyr) John Brown stayed there when he conducted business in Chicago.
Mary expressed that she thought Brown “was a little off on the slavery question . . . that I did not believe he could ever do what he wanted to do, and that somebody would have to give up his life before it was done.”
The last time his Chicago friends saw him, they insisted on a new suit to aid his disguise. “I guess John Brown was hung in these same clothes,” recalled Mary Jones.
Chicago’s Black-led Underground Railroad
Opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law led to increased activity along the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR). This network of Black families and white allies ran throughout the state of Illinois and ended in Chicago, from whence fugitive men and women could make their way to Canada either by boat or by train. This landscape of resistance in Chicago centered on church networks, abolitionist social circles, and women’s domestic realms. Dearborn Street became especially well-known for its many UGRR stops, located in both public and private buildings.
Mary Richardson Jones (after 1883) by Baldwin & DrakeChicago History Museum
Mary Richardson Jones was an active member of Chicago’s abolitionist, activist, and eventually woman’s suffrage movements. In addition to engaging frankly in political discourse with both her husband and fellow activists John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Jones was on the frontlines of the Underground Railroad, assisting self-liberating people onto trains bound for Detroit and Canada, as enslavers watched helplessly.
In Illinois, and especially in Chicago, trains and railroads were an important part of the UGRR. Many Black activists and UGRR leaders utilized the railroads to send fugitives from slavery to certain freedom in Canada.
Railroads such as the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific and the Illinois Central reportedly cooperated with those running the UGRR to help in the endeavor for emancipation.
Home at 3334 South Vernon Avenue, Chicago (c. 1890) by unknownChicago History Museum
Emma Jane Atkinson also aided men, women, and children making their escape to freedom. In one instance, she helped conceal a self-liberating woman by covering the fugitive’s red hair with black soot, successfully rendering her unrecognizable to the enslaver pursuing her.
She also used the Atkinson family home as a space to hide and aid fugitives from slavery. Their home at 420 West Oak Street, near where the Cabrini-Green homes once stood, was a hub of Underground Railroad activity. After successfully operating the UGRR, Isaac Atkinson worked for the Chicago and North Western Railroad, and by 1870, the family had $8,000 in real estate. The Atkinson family later moved to a spacious home located at 3334 South Vernon Avenue.
Thomas Hoyne's residence (c. 1902) by Justin HerriottChicago History Museum
This system of covert, and sometimes overt, activity brought abolitionist-minded white and Black Chicagoans together. White abolitionist Thomas Hoyne’s home on Michigan Avenue was one such place of refuge.
“My friend,” John Jones wrote to Frederick Douglass in 1853. “Illinois is aroused; she is being agitated from center to circumference.”
“Our friends among the whites cheer us on to victory; they say the time has come when ‘HE WHO WOULD BE FREE HIMSELF MUST STRIKE THE BLOW.’”
Tremont House before the Great Chicago Fire (c. 1865) by Charles R. ClarkChicago History Museum
Underground Railroad safe havens were not just limited to private homes. In Chicago, places such as the famous Tremont House hotel became known for harboring fugitives from slavery. Abolitionists’ use of such well-known public spaces as sites of resistance to federal law was representative of the general sentiments of the city. “The Underground Railroad is doing a fair business this season,” John Jones wrote to Frederick Douglass in 1853. “We received eleven passengers last night, and two the night before.”
Reverend Richard De Baptiste (1875) by unknownChicago History Museum
Brothers Richard and George De Baptiste, like most of their activist comrades, came to Chicago in the antebellum era, if only for a short stint. Both Richard and George became deeply embedded in the networks of abolitionism and organized safe “depots” between Chicago and Detroit. In conjunction with John Jones, George secured connections to safety and freedom mostly through a network of Black families and religious organizations.
During the Civil War, Richard helped organize Olivet Baptist Church and spearheaded the successful effort to make the church one of the most prominent in the city.
Zebina Eastman (1880) by C. D. MosherChicago History Museum
White people aligned with the anti-slavery cause constituted an important part of the abolitionist community in Chicago. In addition to Thomas Hoyne, men such as Dr. Charles V. Dyer, druggist Philo Carpenter, Zebina Eastman, and Allan Pinkerton joined forces with Chicago’s Black activists to resist the Fugitive Slave Law and took on risk to harbor and aid men, women, and children escaping slavery.
Cane belonging to Charles V. Dyer by unknownChicago History Museum
Dr. Charles V. Dyer became well-known in Chicago’s abolitionist community for boldly and openly spurning the Fugitive Slave Law.
One story holds that he employed a self-emancipated man from Kentucky as a servant. When the man’s former enslaver tried to reclaim him, Dyer “broke his elegant rosewood cane” over the head of the Kentucky slave catcher to secure his employee’s freedom.
Several of Dyer’s African American friends repaired his rosewood cane and had it topped with gold.
First-Generation Fights for Rights
The anti-Black laws passed in Illinois’s early days of statehood prohibited African Americans from voting and testifying in court against white people, required that all free African Americans register with local judges, and prevented them from enjoying the general benefits and protections provided to white citizens. In addition to running the Underground Railroad and resisting the Fugitive Slave Law, Chicago’s first Black generation fought for basic citizenship rights.
Kitty Hudlin (1879) by HenshelChicago History Museum
Anna Elizabeth Hudlin worked tirelessly in her community and at home. She and her husband, Joseph, fought for their nine children, including for the future of their daughter, Kitty. In 1861, the state legislature mandated separate schools for African American children, which would in fact segregate the schools in Chicago, where, unlike other places in Illinois, African American children and white children attended school together. The Hudlins protested, appealing successfully, albeit temporarily, to the mayor and school board for integrated public schools in Chicago.
During the fire of 1871, Anna Elizabeth earned the moniker “Fire Angel” for opening her house to those in need. She and Joseph provided relief as well as hardtack and water from the lake. Joseph also became well-known for an act of selflessness during the fire. When flames threatened the Board of Trade building, he rushed over and managed to save many valuable documents from the vault.
Courthouse and City Hall, view from Clark and Randolph looking southwest (1855-07-04) by unknownChicago History Museum
In 1853, the white Illinois legislature passed what Black activists referred to as the “Illinois Slave Law,” the most egregious iteration in the series of Illinois’s Black laws. The new law forbade African Americans from moving to the state of Illinois. Officially titled “An act to prevent the immigration of free Negroes into this State,” the law prohibited any person of African descent from residing in the state for longer than ten days, or they would be subject to arrest, fine, detention, or even auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Moreover, if the African American person paid the fine, the white citizen who reported them was owed half the sum, thus incentivizing white civilian policing of African Americans.
Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois, prepared for Lincoln's funeral (1865-05-05) by unknownChicago History Museum
The response from the African American community was outrage and even more militant organizing.
Henry O. Wagoner was speechless. “What can I say,” he wrote to Frederick Douglass in March 1853. “What need I say to you, who, already know as well as I can tell you of the hell-black and heaven-daring enactment called LAW, passed by the late general Assembly of Illinois, to prohibit the immigration of colored persons into the State? Many of the States have, of late, as you also know, endeavored to pass similar enactments; but, I believe, ‘Egypt’ has capt [sic] the climax of monstrosities in this direction.”
A Hero Home from the War (1987) by Hermann R. MuelderChicago History Museum
Joseph Barquet, a mason and another one of Chicago’s Black activists, wrote a letter published in the abolitionist newspaper The Western Citizen. He lamented the law and believed “the friends of justice and right have been tramped underfoot.”
Barquet moved to the northeastern town of Galesburg, Illinois, where he continued to fight for equality. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted to fight for abolition and freedom with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Douglass' Monthly (1861-05) by Frederick DouglassChicago History Museum
Though disenfranchised, African American men and women found many ways to resist and advocate for the repeal of the offensive Black Laws. They petitioned the legislature, held meetings, organized conventions, raised funds, built their own separate organizations, and spoke out publicly against injustice.
Many economically and socially prominent leaders of the African American community came together to hold two antebellum Colored Conventions in Illinois. The first took place in 1853 in Chicago and the next in 1856 in Alton, Illinois.
Lewis Isbell at the Old Settlers Picnic (1905-08-07) by Chicago Daily News, Inc.Chicago History Museum
Lewis Isbell attended both conventions, representing Cook County.
He was appointed to the Committee on Finance in 1853 and in 1856 worked on the Constitution for the State Repeal and Auxiliary Associations, supporting the fight to repeal the Black Laws.
Certificate of Freedom for John Jones (1847-11-28) by Circuit Court of Madison County, IllinoisChicago History Museum
John Jones, who was forced to secure his freedom in this “free” state in 1844, did not stop advocating for the repeal of the Black laws—even after eleven states seceded and went to war to preserve the institution of slavery.
In the midst of the Civil War in 1864, Jones published a pamphlet titled, “The Black laws of Illinois and Why They Should Be Repealed.”
His influential pamphlet is credited with helping lead to the repeal of the laws in 1865.
Preserving and Celebrating Chicago’s Earliest Black Communities
As Black activism and organizing ramped up at the end of the 1850s, so too did sectional divisions within Illinois and the rest of the country. However, with the outbreak of war in 1861, new fights were just beginning. Chicago’s African Americans were able to draw from their experience first fighting indentured servitude, then the Fugitive Slave Law and the Black Laws, to organize for what they would face in the 1860s and beyond. Moreover, preserving their legacies fell to subsequent generations, who avidly took up the task.
Eliza Campbell Taylor (c. 1880)Chicago History Museum
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago’s earliest settler families started to preserve the history of their generation of “firsts.” Among their ranks were John Jones, the first African American Cook County Commissioner; Joanna Cecilia Snowden Porter, the first African American bank clerk; Cassius J. King, the first child born into an African American family in Chicago; Joseph Hudlin, the first African American homeowner; and Eliza Campbell-Taylor (pictured here), the first African American public school teacher in Chicago.
One of the primary manifestations of this effort was the founding of the Chicago Old Settlers Social Club in the early 1900s. Ida McIntosh Dempsey, daughter of Reverend Aeons McIntosh, was founder and president, and Lewis Isbell was honorary vice president. The society was open only to Black Chicagoans who had arrived in Chicago before the Great Fire of 1871 and “designed to be of general advantage to the colored people of the city.”
Joanna Cecelia Snowden (c. 1890) by LoomisChicago History Museum
Another child of the Hudlins, Joanna Cecilia, sought to preserve the work of her parents and of Chicago’s first Black community through writing their history.
In the early twentieth century, Joanna worked to collect documents and record memories of the accomplishments and histories of those she termed “early Chicagoans.”
Silver fork (c. 1841) by Nowlin & McElwainChicago History Museum
When John Jones’s daughter, Lavinia Jones Lee, donated her father’s papers to the Chicago History Museum (then the Historical Society), she recalled that winning the fight against Chicago’s Black Laws was the highlight of his life.
“The whole life of Mr. Jones has been spent in devotion to the welfare of his race,” she wrote. “But he regards none of the labors of his busy life with more satisfaction than his warfare upon the Black Laws of this State.”
These forks, gifted by Frederick Douglass to Mary Richardson Jones upon her marriage to John in 1841, stand testament to the activist legacy and network built by the Jones family. “Frederick to Mary,” reads one of the fork’s engravings, highlighting both the personal and national scope of the movement for African American rights in the nineteenth century.
Lerone Bennett, a senior editor for Ebony Magazine (1973-09-20) by Gene Pesek for Chicago Sun-TimesChicago History Museum
In 1964, broadcaster Studs Terkel interviewed Black historian Lerone Bennett on the legacies of Black abolitionists and aired the interview in 1971 as part of a program dedicated to Frederick Douglass.
Bennett reflected on the similarities between Black abolitionists and the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. “Both ask for a complete change in things as they were, in the case of abolitionists, and things as they are today,” he said.
The abolitionist movement and the UGRR created “A moment of truth for moderates and for liberals who wanted to sit on the fence in the age of great moral crisis.”
The “Negro agents who traveled on this railroad forced people to make a decision,” explained Bennett. Wherever a fugitive “knocked on the door, or wherever he requested aid or medicine or bread or a place to sleep for the night, a man had to make a decision, and he had to decide for or against slavery, and having decided, he was never the same again, you see.”
Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at Quinn Chapel (1965-07-25) by Chicago Sun-TiimesChicago History Museum
Subsequent generations also built on the institutions founded by and continued the work of Chicago’s first generation of Black activists.
In July 1957, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Quinn Chapel AME in celebration of the church’s 110th anniversary, continuing the legacy that centered religious organizations at the heart of civil rights movements.
Mary Atkinson Henderson (c. 1890) by unknownChicago History Museum
In the 1990s, Grace Mason and Michele Madison, the great-granddaughters of abolitionists and activists Emma Jane and Isaac Atkinson, sought to make their family heirlooms an educational tool—one that would help shed light on the history of Chicago’s first Black generation.
“It all starts with the family,” Michele Madison told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “That’s what it’s all about.”
It is this legacy of nearly two hundred years of activism in Chicago that grounds today’s movements in the fight against new iterations of deeply historical injustices.
Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:
Peter T. Alter
Charles E. Bethea
Timothy Paton Jr.
Christopher Robert Reed
See more at chicagohistory.org/concert-is-power