Early Chicago: Slavery in Illinois

Poster for slave auction

Poster for slave auction Source: Chicago History Museum

Slavery has a long and complex history in the State of Illinois. The practice was first brought to the Midwest by French explorers in the mid-1700s and became well established in the region. It was later prohibited in lands covered by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (which included the future state of Illinois), but the ordinance fell short of ending slavery because it allowed residents to retain all possessions, including slaves.

In 1818, Illinois was admitted into the Union as a “free” state, but slavery continued and free blacks were oppressed by a series of restrictive state laws that denied them fundamental freedoms. These Illinois Black Laws (also known as Black Codes) were observed from 1819 - 1865. Under these laws, blacks could not vote; testify or bring suit against whites; gather in groups of three or more without risk of being jailed or beaten; and could not serve in the militia and thus were unable to own or bear arms. Blacks living in the state were required to obtain and carry a Certificate of Freedom; otherwise, they were presumed to be slaves. The Illinois constitution also allowed indentured servitude at the salt mines in southern Illinois. The mines provided significant income for the state, and served as an American presence in what the United States government considered vulnerable frontier territory.

Illinois’ Black Laws were repealed in 1865, the same year the United States Congress ended the legal institution of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment.