African Americans in Chicago During the Civil War

Daniel Hautzinger
Unidentified Black Soldier with Cannons. (Library of Congress)
An unidentified black soldier. (Library of Congress)

When Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, Henry Slaughter was there. A former slave from Lexington, Kentucky who had enlisted in the Union Army to gain his freedom, Slaughter was part of the 116th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, Company K. About six months after his enlistment, the rest of his family was freed from slavery. Many years later, around 1918, the widower moved to Chicago with several of his children.

A cover of Harper's Weekly depicting an African American regiment in the Civil War. (Library of Congress)African Americans were not allowed to become officers in the army, so black regiments were led by white men. (Library of Congress) With Slaughter that fateful day at Appomattox was another African American regiment, from his future home state. The 29th Illinois was organized in 1864 and had 1,811 men on its roster, though probably only about half of them were actually from Illinois. Black Chicagoans who enlisted in the 29th were recruited at the downtown store of John Jones, “the most successful and highly publicized African American entrepreneur” in Chicago at the time, according to Slaughter’s great-grandson Christopher R. Reed. Reed is an eminent historian who taught at Roosevelt University from 1987 to 2009, and who has written numerous books on the history of Black Chicago.

John Jones was a tailor whose estimated worth grew from around $10,000 in 1860 to between 85 and 100 thousand dollars in 1871. In 1872 he became the first African American to be elected to a municipal office in Illinois, serving two terms as a Cook County commissioner. During and before the Civil War, he led the legal fight to repeal the Illinois Black Code.

The tailor John Jones worked to repeal the Illinois Black Code and was the first African American elected to a municipal office in Illinois. (Chicago History Museum)The tailor John Jones worked to repeal the Illinois Black Code and was the first African American elected to a municipal office in Illinois. (Chicago History Museum) Enacted in 1818, this was a set of laws patterned on legislation in other Northern states that restricted and regulated the African American population. Under the Code, a black man could not serve on a jury, vote, or provide testimony against whites in court; in a particularly egregious case, a well-known black barber was pickpocketed by a white man but was forbidden under the law from testifying against the thief in court. (This story and all the information in this article comes from Christopher R. Reed’s Black Chicago’s First Century, Volume 1, 1833-1900, a soon-to-be-published article about African American entrepreneurship in Chicago, and conversation with Dr. Reed.)

On March 3, 1865, the Illinois Black Code was finally repealed. Even before its repeal, Chicago was viewed as “a haven for the fugitive from oppression,” according to Reed, though it was an imperfect haven. The city was a Republican, pro-Lincoln stronghold with a prominent but small group of abolitionists whose press organ was the increasingly popular Chicago Tribune.

Chicago’s reputation drew an estimated 20 African American refugees of slavery per day at the height of the Civil War. By 1870, Chicago’s black population reached 3,691 people, an increase of more than 600% from 1860. The refugees faced impoverishment and disease in Chicago, but many did find work as menial laborers. Unfortunately, white laborers, especially Irish dock workers, felt threatened by the influx of black labor, and race riots erupted in 1862 and 1864, and an African American man was killed out of hate in 1863.

A group of freed slaves, known as contrabands. (Library of Congress)Many freed slaves, known as contrabands, moved to Chicago during the war, boosting the African American population of the city by 600% in ten years. (Library of Congress) Additionally, Chicago did house a Democratic, anti-black newspaper, the Chicago Times. And when Democrats won the mayoralty midway through the war, they set up a segregated school that was quickly shuttered in 1865. But because of her race, a hard-working mulatto girl was denied a diploma upon completion of school during the war.

Despite these obstacles, Black Chicago enjoyed an improved social status during and after the war. In addition to the influx of refugees, a second generation of black Chicagoans was beginning: the children of families who secured freedom before the war and moved to the city.

A map of Chicago in 1871.By 1871, a black professional class was emerging in Chicago. A black professional class began to emerge. Richard Mason Hancock worked his way up to become a journeyman in a foundry, supervising white men. A Dr. Hutchinson was the first African American physician in the city, while James H. Lewis was the first dentist. Both amassed substantial fortunes from their practice. And an African American owned a restaurant on the West Side.

The church especially developed during the war. Two small Baptist churches merged to become the large and influential Olivet Baptist Church, while African Americans on the city’s West Side founded Providence Baptist. Quinn Chapel A.M.E., the city’s oldest African American church, grew so much it faced overcrowding, leading to the founding of Bethel A.M.E.  

Such community-building and entrepreneurial effort only continued after the war, so that when Henry Slaughter arrived in Chicago in 1918, he encountered the beginnings of a “Black Metropolis.” When he died, he was symbolically interred in Lincoln Cemetery, a fitting tribute to a proud veteran of the Civil War.

Observe the valiant lives of African Americans as well as the deplorable conditions of camps for freed slaves in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War in the PBS original drama Mercy Street, airing and available to stream Sundays at 7:00 pm beginning January 22. 

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