Early Chicago: Mary Richardson Jones

Mary Richardson Jones

Mary Richardson Jones opened her home to help fugitive slaves.

Mary Jane Richardson Jones was born a free African American in Tennessee. While living in Memphis, Tennessee, she met John Jones and fell in love, but the couple temporarily separated when the Richardson family moved to Alton, Illinois. John later followed Mary to Alton and they married in 1844. While traveling to their new home in Chicago, they were suspected of being runaway slaves and detained. Fortunately, the stagecoach driver confirmed their status as free blacks and they were allowed to continue on their way.

Mary Jones became an active member in the abolitionist movement in Chicago. She opened her home at 119 Dearborn to fugitive slaves and provided a space for abolitionists to meet. Her daughter called the family home a "haven for escaped slaves" and believed the family was personally responsible for helping hundreds of runaway slaves travel to Canada. The actions of the Jones family reflected the strong will of their community. When Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 and the provisional bill, the Fugitive Slave Act — which required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves, denied a fugitive's right to a jury trial, and made filing a claim easier for slave owners — John Jones stood before a capacity black audience at the African Methodist Church on Wells Street and proclaimed the community's resolve to fight against the return of any black person to bondage.

"We are determined to defend ourselves at all hazards, even should it be to the shedding of human blood. We who have tasted freedom are ready to exclaim in the language of the brave Patrick Henry, 'Give us liberty or give us death.'"