From Slave to State Legislator: John W.E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker

By Weight, Donovan | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

From Slave to State Legislator: John W.E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker


Weight, Donovan, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


From Slave to State Legislator: John W.E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker. By David A. Joens. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 256, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $34.95.)

The study of black political participation in Chicago began with Harold Gosneli's Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (1935), but David Joens' new book, From Slave to State Legislator: John W. E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker, is the first historical biography of a postbellum black Chicago politician. In this work, Joens artfully uses the life of John Thomas to examine the development of postbellum Northern black life, asserting that Thomas' career "reflects the first steps of a distinct ethnic community that... collaborated and competed with other interest groups in the political, social, and economic spheres" (p.2). Furthermore, Joens states that Thomas was a prime example of how newly freed African Americans who moved north immediately took advantage of new opportunities. Born a slave in Alabama, Thomas became the first black Illinois state legislator in 1876 and was eventually one of three black men honored with a portrait on the stage at the inaugural convention of T. Thomas Fortune's AfroAmerican League.

Joens' knack for political history and his forced reliance on political newspaper archives for primary sources mean he is at his best when discussing politics. He artfully examines Thomas' sometimes-conflicting roles of African- American political leader and Republican. From 1876-1895 Thomas was Chicago's preeminent black politician. During this time, Thomas served three terms as a legislator and sponsored his crowning piece of legislation: the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885. Thomas also chaired two state black conventions in which delegates discussed issues such as education, accommodations, and grievances against the Republican Party for lack of patronage appointments. The Republican Party of the 1880s still touted its emancipationist credentials and demanded loyalty from black voters while rewarding other loyal minority groups with patronage positions. Despite this, Thomas saw in the Republicans the best opportunity for racial uplift and therefore took on the dual responsibility of uniting fractured African Americans under the Republican banner while representing his legislative district where African Americans comprised less than fifteen percent of the electorate. …

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