Unidentified woman (1862) by unknownChicago History Museum
This exhibit recounts the history of Chicago’s first Black generation as told through the Chicago History Museum’s collections. It highlights the struggles that free African American men and women confronted in Illinois and the resilience they showed as they fought for their vision of equality at the intersection of residual slavery and limited freedom.
Through the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War, a small but determined African American population developed a vast abolitionist network and fought tirelessly against Illinois’s racist Black Laws. 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/.
First Chicagoan: Jean Baptiste Point DuSable
Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was the first non-Native person to settle for an extended time in the bustling area of trade and commerce that would soon become Chicago. He was a Black trader, carpenter, cooper, and miller, who came to the area around 1775.
DuSable built his home on the traditional homelands of the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi (who make up the Council of Three Fires), as well as the Ho-Chunk, Miami, Sac, and Fox nations. During his twenty or so years in the area, du Sable prospered economically through relationships with French traders, Indigenous traders and nations, and his own growing family. He and his wife, Kittihawa (Catherine), a member of the Potawatomi nation, had two children, Suzanne and Jean Baptiste.
Inventory of property owned by Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable (c. 1800) by unknownChicago History Museum
When the family left the Chicago area for St. Charles, Missouri, DuSable sold his homestead and belongings.
English translation of property owned by Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable (page 1) (c. 1800) by unknownChicago History Museum
During his nearly quarter-century of trading, he amassed: a house, numerous farm buildings, farm equipment, and housewares.
English translation of property owned by Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable (page 2) (c. 1800) by unknownChicago History Museum
His impressive array of acquired property reflects his success as a trader and settler despite the marginal freedom he experienced as a man of African descent in early America.
Map of the mouth of the Chicago River (c. 1830) by F. Harrison, Jr.Chicago History Museum
Yet, DuSable was part of America’s systemic expropriation of Native land, and he reaped the profits of trade networks that existed long before his arrival. Subsequent African Americans arriving in Chicago would find it difficult to achieve the same material success, largely due to anti-Black laws, which allowed aspects of slavery to reach into “free” states. In other words, Chicago’s first generation had to contend with something du Sable had not―the racist laws of a substantial white population.
After DuSable’s departure at the turn of the nineteenth century, it took three decades for a sizable population of free African Americans, many of whom came from slave states or were formerly enslaved, to build a new life in the largely white town of Chicago, which was incorporated as a city in 1837.
and Indenture in Early Illinois
By 1837, Chicago’s population was 4,066. Of those residents, just 77 were of African descent. Contributing to the sparseness of the free Black population were the Illinois Constitution's proscribed systems of labor and severe anti-Black laws.
Indenture of Lucey (1815-10-09) by Joseph ConwayChicago History Museum
Slavery had been outlawed in the Northwest Territory (from which Illinois was derived) with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but white men and women devised slavery-like institutions, such as indentured servitude, to continue to extract uncompensated labor from people of African descent in “free” territories and states. Indentured servitude was a common type of bound labor used in British territories in North America. When Illinois acquired statehood in 1818, the new state’s Constitution outlawed slavery but permitted indentured servitude.
William Wilson, a white man, moved to Illinois in 1818 with two enslaved people. Slavery was banned, so Wilson instead obtained indenture contracts with 99-year terms. Upon completion of the term, his “servants” would be compensated.
At least 600 contracts that held African Americans in indentured servitude were signed in Illinois during the first half of the nineteenth century, such as this one that indentured Lucey, an African American woman, to Robert Chesney in Illinois’s southwestern county of St. Clair in 1815.
Certificate of Freedom for Mary Jones (1847-11-28) by Circuit Court of Madison County, IllinoisChicago History Museum
Illinois legislators also relegated free African Americans to second-class status through a handful of anti-Black laws, known collectively as the Black Laws, first instituted in 1819. Under these laws, Illinoisans of African descent could not vote, could not testify against white people in court, could not bear arms, and were required to register with the local authorities.
African Americans were denied citizenship.
Yet, Black men and women moving to Illinois found ways to ensure their precarious freedom through legal avenues. These emancipation strategies took the form of servitude contracts, self-purchase, and going to court to obtain “Certificates of Freedom.”
Free Black Families
Settle in Chicago
Despite the limitations to their freedom, African Americans continued to move to Chicago. By 1860, the city’s population had grown to over one hundred thousand, and African Americans accounted for nearly 1,000 of those residents.
Lewis Isbell (or Isabell) (c. 1893) by JohnsonChicago History Museum
Lewis Isbell, one of Chicago’s earliest Black residents after du Sable, was born with enslaved status in Kentucky in 1819. His enslaver freed him and his father upon their move to the eastern-Illinois border town of Paris, located sixty miles southeast of Champaign. Isbell, after learning the barbering trade, moved to Chicago with an entrepreneurial spirit and by the 1830s owned three bathhouses in the city.
Emma Jane Atkinson (c. 1865) by unknownChicago History Museum
In 1847, the young Atkinson family arrived in Chicago. They made their home on State and Quincy Streets. Emma Jane, of Cherokee and African American descent, maintained the family’s home, raised six children, and earned renown for her participation in abolitionist activities. Her husband, Isaac, the son of Scotsman Richard Atkinson and Cecilia, a member of the Cherokee nation, started his own horse-drawn omnibus business. They prided themselves as the thirteenth Black family to settle in the city.
Portrait of John Jones (c. 1865) by Aaron E. DarlingChicago History Museum
John Jones and his wife, Mary Richardson, arrived in Chicago in 1845. John, who became the most renowned Black activist in Chicago, was born in 1816 in North Carolina, the son of a free African American mother and German father.
When Mary’s family relocated from Tennessee to the southwest border town of Alton, Illinois, John followed, and the couple married. A few years later, with their baby daughter, Lavinia, the small family made the journey upstate.
Even in a supposedly “free” state, this seven-day stagecoach trip was not without its dangers, as the Jones family faced white gazes doubtful of their claims to freedom.
John Jones (John Bromfield) document (1838-01-07) by John Jones, Valentine D. Barry, William H. MitchellChicago History Museum
After ensuring his free status through court petition in Tennessee in 1838, Jones again had to stake a claim to his freedom in his new home in Illinois. In accordance with the Black Laws passed a quarter of a century earlier, Jones registered his proof of freedom in Edwardsville, Madison County, in southwest Illinois, in 1842.
After proving his status as a free man, Jones could then obtain his “Certificate of Freedom,” which he was sure to carry with him on the journey from Alton to Chicago.
Portrait of Mary Richardson Jones (c. 1865) by Aaron E. DarlingChicago History Museum
Mary Richardson Jones was born in Tennessee in 1820, the daughter of Elijah Richardson, a free blacksmith, and his wife, Diza Morris Richardson. Upon her move to Chicago with her new husband and baby, Mary made their home in a rented one-room cottage. She also became involved with the city’s growing abolitionist movement.
Abram (or Abraham) Thompson Hall (c. 1887) by UnknownChicago History Museum
Abram Thomson Hall, born to free parents in Pennsylvania, found his calling as a reverend and barber in early Chicago. The first African American granted a license to preach in Illinois, Hall met North Carolina‒born Joanna Huss in Chicago in 1846. The two “met, loved, wooed and united in marriage.” They went on to be activist leaders in Chicago’s Black community, especially Joanna, who became famous for her work with the Underground Railroad.
J. B. Dawson Sr. (c. 1875) by UnknownChicago History Museum
Reverend John Brown Dawson was born with free status in what is now West Virginia in 1819. Trained as a barber but seeking a life as a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, Dawson relocated with wife, Julia, and their children to Illinois by 1856.
Dawson owned and operated a grocery store, which he opened in 1857, and was proprietor of Dawson Subdivision (now known as the northwest Chicago community of Avondale). He also worked to repeal the Black laws.
As an entrepreneur, property-owner, preacher, and activist, Dawson exemplifies the multifaceted nature of the lives of individuals who worked to create a viable community for Chicago’s subsequent generations.
Ida McIntosh Dempsey (1880) by Hesler & PeabodyChicago History Museum
Reverend Aeons McIntosh was another minister associated with the AME churches in Chicago. He became the head of Bethel AME in 1862. Reverends McIntosh and Dawson were remembered as “leaders of their class.”
Rev. McIntosh’s daughter, Ida McIntosh Dempsey, became a prominent socialite among Chicago’s burgeoning Black elite in the second half of the nineteenth century. She would go on to play a pivotal role in preserving the legacies of Chicago’s first African American generation.
Elizabeth Anna Hudlin (1881) by Chicago Photographic StudiosChicago History Museum
Anna Elizabeth Lewis, born in Pennsylvania in 1840, married Virginian Joseph Henry Hudlin in Chicago when she was 15 years old. Joseph was born with enslaved status in 1830 and moved to St. Louis, where he worked as a steamboat steward. After he and Anna Elizabeth wed, Joseph found employment as head janitor at the Board of Trade.
They became the first Black family to build their own clapboard home, located at 239 Third Avenue (now Plymouth Court) in 1857. Anna Elizabeth Hudlin’s homemaking and hard work transformed their five-room house into a center of social networking and activity, well-known among Chicago’s first African American leaders.
Joseph Hudlin (c. 1875) by WorthingtonChicago History Museum
The Hudlins would go on to fight for their children's right to attend integrated public schools in Chicago.
Cassius J. King (c. 1880)Chicago History Museum
Henry King arrived in 1844. The very next year, he and his wife had a son. Their new baby, Cassius, was reputedly the first child born into a free African American family in Chicago since the du Sable’s departure.
By 1870, Cassius J. King was married, had picked up the tailoring trade, and had amassed $300 in personal wealth, the equivalent of nearly $6,000 today. Fifty years later, in 1920, he and his wife, Gertrude, still lived in Chicago—at 3110 South Vernon Ave—and the septuagenarian worked as a clerk in a cigar shop.
Mary Bond (c. 1888) by HenshelChicago History Museum
The Bond family arrived in Chicago in 1856.
Samuel H. and Mary Ann Bond, both born in Maryland, moved their family of seven from Baltimore to Chicago. Their oldest son, William H. M. Bond, took after his father and worked as a porter. By 1870, he had amassed $2,500 in real estate and had $100 in personal estate (the equivalent of nearly $50,000 and $2,000 today, respectively). Mary Ann continued to live with William at 54 Boston Avenue (now 763 West Gladys Avenue) into the 1880s.
Letter from Ida B. Wells regarding support for the Negro Fellowship League (1914-11-10) by Ida B. WellsChicago History Museum
Anna Simpson arrived in Chicago in 1851 and wasted no time organizing individuals into collective action.
In 1854, she started the Daughters of Union, a women’s benevolent civic group that helped with healthcare and burial costs for Chicago’s Black community. When President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the society participated in the jubilee celebrating the “Dawn of Liberty,” held at Quinn Chapel AME.
Societies such as Daughters of Union were precursors to the prolific club movement of the late nineteenth century. One such club was Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Negro Fellowship League, which aided African American migrants coming to Chicago from the South, helped with employment opportunities, and facilitated political and social engagements among Chicago’s Black communities.
Quinn Chapel AME Church (1952-06) by Murphy, J. SherwinChicago History Museum
As the population of free African Americans in Chicago swelled, like other free Black communities throughout the nation, they began to establish institutions. First among these new organizations were churches and places of worship.
Quinn Chapel was the first AME church in the city, where it still stands at 2401 S. Wabash Ave. Abram T. Hall, along with Madison Patterson, Oliver Henderson, and Maria Parker, were some of the earliest members and organizers of Quinn Chapel in the late 1840s.
African American community life developed around churches in the mid-nineteenth century. Churches transformed into spaces for schooling, socializing and political organizing, as well as meeting halls for benevolent, literary, and mutual aid societies, community banks, and fraternal organizations.
Olivet Baptist Church (1922) by Chicago Commission on Race RelationsChicago History Museum
Zoar Baptist Church was founded in 1850. This church merged with another African American Baptist church, Mt. Zion, in 1862 to create the well-known Olivet Baptist Church.
Several generations in the future, Olivet would become the largest African American church in the city of Chicago.
But in antebellum Chicago, these churches were frequently used as centers for abolitionist activity.
List of Knights Templar officers (1869 (date depicted))Chicago History Museum
The tight-knit African American community expanded in Chicago’s South Division, building homes or renting houses largely in the First and Second Wards.
They grew their families, started churches, organized benevolent societies, and fostered a sense of belonging in the “frontier” town. By the 1850s, the busy community had founded saloons, barbershops, tailor shops, groceries, bathhouses, schools, literary societies, churches, and fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Tabor, a Masonic lodge, the Order of Good Samaritanism, the Order of Odd Fellows, and the Daughters of Union.
The community even had a Colored People’s Savings Institution of Chicago by 1858, led by Reverend John Brown Dawson as president, which also met at Quinn Chapel.
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