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Protests Illinois Black Laws

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John Jones bitterly opposed Black Laws, calling them the reason for poverty among blacks. Obsessive fear of slave insurrections led many states to adopt Black Laws early on. Illinois Black Laws were adopted in 1819 and made it clear that blacks had no legal rights. They could neither sue nor be sued; they could testify against another slave or a free black but never against whites; they could own no property or merchandise; their oath was worthless; they could not become educated; no more than three could come together for dancing, unless a white person was present; and so on.

Illinois became notorious for restricting blacks’ rights. When the state’s Constitutional Convention was held in 1847, Jones was there to call for repeal. He wrote a series of articles in Chicago’s Western Citizen in that year, defended black rights, and noted, among other accomplishments, the record of blacks in the Revolutionary War. He insisted that blacks had a right to equal representation and equality before the law. Still, Illinois passed Article XIV of the 1848 Illinois Constitution, which prohibited blacks from immigrating to and settling in Illinois. After that, Jones became well known as a spokesman for black rights.

Jones and other black Chicagoans met at Olivet Baptist Church on August 7, 1848, where Jones and Reverend Abraham T. Hall were elected delegates to the forthcoming Colored National Convention to be held in Cleveland. Members of the convention consisted of black freemen. The delegates were to report on the moral and intellectual development of blacks in Illinois. In September, between fifty and seventy-five men assembled for the convention, most of them self-made men who were carpenters, blacksmiths, editors, painters, dentists, farmers, grocers, or clergymen from the United States and Canada. Frederick Douglass was elected president and Jones vice president. The delegates were mainly interested in improving the status of blacks in the United States. They promoted such issues as education, temperance, and community cooperation. While Jones supported mechanical trades, business, farming, and the professions, he opposed menial labor, perhaps equating it with the experiences he had seen as a slave, and the work to which Black Laws relegated black people. The convention nearly became one of political action, as the delegates entertained the idea, but fell short of endorsing a presidential candidate.

Back in Chicago, Jones and other prominent local blacks met on September 11 to work further to repeal the state’s Black Laws. They formed a correspondence committee to determine the feasibility of circulating a petition to repeal the laws and to identify all blacks in the Fourth Congressional District. But the 1849 session gave no further hope for repeal. Adding fuel to the racial unrest was the Fugitive Slave Act which Congress passed in September 1850, further preventing black emancipation. This act gave the federal government almost unlimited power to seize and return fugitive slaves, to deny the slave a trial by jury, and to enable slave owners to provide a single affidavit to claim their slaves. Those who failed to follow the law could be subjected to heavy penalties. The law produced great fear and alarm in blacks everywhere, for this was a dehumanizing act that gave whites license to engage in man-hunting schemes.

Jones and his followers were relentless in their work. On September 30, 1850, over three hundred black Chicagoans rallied at Quinn Chapel to determine their course of resistance to the new law. Jones was appointed to the resolutions committee and brought the committee’s report to the mass meeting before the session ended. The committee was resolved to resist any attempt to return blacks to bondage and, at the risk of imprisonment or even death, to defend each other. There was no doubt that the Fugitive Slave Act was designed to re-enslave blacks. Then the group formed a vigilance committee that would become a black police force and would serve as long as needed. There were seven divisions in the force and six people within each division. The force patrolled the city each night and kept watch for so-called interlopers.

In December 1850, Jones circulated another petition—signed by black residents of the state—for state legislators to repeal the Black Laws. In fact, subsequent petitions were circulated throughout the 1850s but to no avail. Chicago’s black leaders had a double fight—state and federal laws that restricted blacks. Jones moved his campaign outside Illinois, as he and Frederick Douglas took an antislavery tour throughout the West. By now, leaders saw a need to revive the black national convention movement. Thus, in 1853 Douglass called a meeting of free blacks, and nine states responded by sending 140 delegates. They met in Rochester, New York, on July 6, 1853, and elected Reverend James W. L. Pennington of New York as president. Among the vice presidents elected were Jones and Douglass. The group was known as the Union of Colored People of the Free States, later called the Colored National Convention. There were six councils in each state. Jones and James D. Bonner led the Illinois movement. Four standing committees were appointed as well: the Manual Labor School, Protective Unions, Business Relations, and Publications. The idea of an industrial school was not new and had been endorsed as early as the 1830s. Jones, Douglass, and other leaders, such as James McCune Smith, endorsed the idea, contending that white artisans refused to accept black apprentices and that blacks needed to learn the skilled trades necessary for social and economic independence. The institution would be called the American Industrial School, to be located in western Pennsylvania. It would admit students regardless of gender or complexion. In 1855, however, the national black convention abandoned the plan.

In October 1853, Chicago hosted the meeting of the first Black Illinois State Convention, where Jones was elected president; later he became chair of the colonizing committee. Both the Illinois and Rochester conventions were unsuccessful in bringing about equal opportunities for blacks. Even so, the black convention movement was significant. The Fugitive Slave Act prompted a black exodus to Canada, factional disputes emerged, financial support for the efforts was inadequate, but the local work had to continue. National black leaders emerged from the movement; they wrote, spoke, and petitioned for black rights and kept the issues before governing bodies. The leaders were firm believers in the race and its rights.

In 1864, the Chicago Tribune published—at his expense—Jones’ pamphlet, The Black Laws of Illinois and a Few Reasons Why They Should Be Repealed . Jones continued to agitate against the Black Laws by distributing his pamphlet, making speeches, writing other articles, and lobbying in the state legislature. But it was not until 1865 that Illinois repealed the provision of its Black Laws.

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