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By Carmen Ensinger
Less than two weeks remain to view the Illinois Freedom Project, a traveling exhibition from the Illinois Humanities exhibit at the Winchester Old School Museum. The exhibition will run through Dec. 19.
The exhibition is in conjunction with the Voice and Votes: Democracy in America – an exhibition from the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum on Main Street Program that will be on display at the Jacksonville Area Museum at the same time.
The Illinois Freedom Project provides a glimpse into the struggles and victories of African Americans in Illinois.
“The Illinois Freedom Project, at its heart, contains stories of people who were looking for as Lincoln said, ‘an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life,’” Lincoln Home National Historic Site Superintendent Tim Townsend said. “The stories of the fight for liberty in Illinois can be found in countless communities in every corner of the state.
“Some feature famous people acting on a public stage, such as Abraham Lincoln and John Jones. Others were less well known, like Jeremiah Boyd, “Free” Frank McWhorter and Susan Richardson, protecting their families, or Civil War veteran Samuel Dalton, fighting for freedom.”
The places in Illinois that witnessed these struggles vary as much as the people who were a part of these struggles.
“Today, we can walk through the halls of Capitol buildings where legislators and common people alike fought for, and some against, freedom,” Townsend said. “We can sit in courtrooms where the decisions were made for and against freedom.
“We can view the fields and forests, small streams and mighty rivers that were desperately crossed by those seeking liberty, and crossed in pursuit by those who wished them to remain in slavery. We can visit homes of those who dreamed of liberty for all and of those who wished liberty only for themselves. We can visit towns that represent integration and freedom. And, we can visit churches where songs were sung and prayers were offered for social change.”
The stories found within the Illinois Freedom Project examine the struggle to achieve the dream of freedom in Illinois, both in the past and today. Lincoln Home National Historic Site; the Old State Capitol State Historic Site and the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, with many youth mentoring organizations and other community partners, undertook a project to investigate the places that best represent the inspiring stories of the move from slavery to freedom in Illinois.
“The project engaged historians, youth mentors, videographers, web designers and others to present these freedom stories in an engaging way,” Townsend said. “The goal of the project is to teach history and inspire youth by presenting stories of victory through adversity.”
The exhibition in the Old School Museum tells the story of black Americans and their struggles from the moment they came to America through 13 large triangular story boards set up within the museum.
The first black slaves in Illinois were transported from New Orleans. Slaves in early Illinois were governed by the Code Noir or Black Code, a law created by France in 1685 that defined slaves as personal property that could be bought and sold just like any other possession.
By 1725, 24 percent of Illinois residents were black. However, not all African Americans in early Illinois were slaves. A small number were free and some even enjoyed a level of equality and acceptance among whites.
Illinois became a state in 1818 with provisions written into its constitution that protected slavery. There were three types of slavery in the supposed “free” state of Illinois: French slaves and their descendants; indentured servants and slaves brought temporarily from slave states to Illinois on one-year renewable work contracts.
However, slave labor continued to be a problem in the state. Among those who profited from slave labor was John Hart Crenshaw, who leased the state-owned salt works along the Saline River near Equality in southeastern Illinois. These salt works were one of the prime employers of slave labor in early Illinois.
Crenshaw is believed to also have been active in a “reverse underground railroad” in which he kidnapped free African Americans and sold them into slavery. Crenshaw was accused in 1842 of kidnapping Maria Adams and her children and having them taken across the Ohio River into slavery. However, he was acquitted because those said to have been kidnapped could not be found.
Despite stringent Black Laws and slavery’s presence in Illinois, free African Americans were able to create meaningful communities throughout the state. Many free African Americans lived among whites in established cities, such as Galena or Springfield.
The Illinois Underground Railroad was a makeshift method for helping fugitive slaves. As many as 300 people at perhaps 500 locations throughout Illinois assisted fugitive slaves in their attempts to reach freedom. Some hid escaped slaves in their homes; some transported slaves to safer places or guided them to other sympathetic collaborators farther north. Some towns became hubs of the Underground Railroad.
The rest of the story can be learned at the Old School Museum.
“The Illinois Freedom Project stories are presented through families and neighborhoods; through communities; through laws, justice and injustice and through average people becoming leaders and taking a stand,” Townsend said. “The Illinois Freedom Project seeks to broaden knowledge and understanding of portions of Illinois history that are often neglected, but which are key to comprehending current culture and society. As Carter G. Woodson said in 1926 – ‘We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.’”
The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1-4 p.m. Please call the museum at 217-742-8090 to arrange group/student visits.