John W. E. Thomas and the Election of the Fist African American to the Illinois General Assembly

By Joens, David A. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

John W. E. Thomas and the Election of the Fist African American to the Illinois General Assembly


Joens, David A., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


On November 7, 1876, the voters of Chicago's Second Legislative District made history in Illinois, when they elected John W. E. Thomas as one of their three state representatives. Thomas, now a footnote in the history of the state, became the first African American to serve in the Illinois General Assembly.1 His election marked a high point in post Civil War Illinois, when the promises of equality and full citizenship for African Americans seemed possible. It also marked a unity among the African American community in Chicago, a unity which would not be seen again until well into the 20th century.

Despite being a free state and the home of Abraham Lincoln, Illinois had not always been a friendly place for African Americans. Beginning in 1819, just one year after statehood, the Illinois General Assembly began enacting a series of discriminatory laws, known as black laws, which severely curtailed the rights of African Americans. Under the black laws, African Americans could not vote, serve on juries, testify in court against a white person, or make a contract.2

Although the city of Chicago fell under the state's discriminatory black laws, it differed greatly from the rest of the state. In pre-Civil War times, it was home to a strong abolitionist movement, so much so that one paper termed it "a sink hole of abolition."3 Chicago contained numerous stops on the underground railroad and was a frequent stopping place for John Brown and Frederick Douglass.

It was from Chicago where the leader of the fight to abolish the black laws, John Jones, emerged. Jones, a tailor, moved to Chicago in 1845. In 1864, Jones worked with Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill and, at his own expense, published a 16-page pamphlet containing a point-by-point denunciation of the black laws. Jones also traveled to Springfield and met with Governor Yates and legislators to discuss their repeal. By early 1865, with the balance of power in Illinois shifting to Chicago and the northern part of the state, both houses of the General Assembly passed the repeal. On February 7, 1865, newly-inaugurated governor Richard Oglesby signed the bill repealing the black laws.4

In abolishing the black laws, Jones became the undisputed leader of Chicago's small African American community. The post-Civil War era continued the promise of full African American equality. Illinois became the first state in the union to ratify the 13th amendment to the federal Constitution, outlawing slavery. Full suffrage for African American males occurred March 30, 1870, when the 15th amendment became effective.5 And efforts at the 1869-1870 state Constitutional convention to deny African American males the right to vote were beaten back.6

In Chicago, Jones became the first African American in Illinois elected to office, when he ran and won election as a Cook County Commissioner. Jones was one of 15 candidates elected as part of a bi-partisan "Fire Proof" slate of candidates after the Great Fire of 1871. Joseph Medill, who along with being the publisher of the Tribune was a powerful Republican leader, had selected Jones for the slate. In the short-lived bipartisan spirit of postfire Chicago, the Democrats had accepted him.

It can be argued that Medill's selection of Jones was to some extent based on race. Medill was a pre-war abolitionist who was active in promoting civil rights for African Americans and his selection of Jones continued that crusade. However, the election of Jones, as opposed to his selection as a candidate, was not based on race, as the 15 candidates ran unopposed and with bi-partisan support. Indeed, as historian Charles Branham notes in the book Ethnic Chicago, Jones's election was not the "opening gun for the emergence of black politics in Chicago."' It would be Thomas's 1876 campaign for the legislature where Chicago would confront race for the first time on the electoral field. Perhaps surprisingly, considering Chicago's much later reputation on race relations, Chicago was able to confront race in a positive way. …

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