Slavery Existed in Illinois, but Schools Don’t Always Teach That HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, curriculum, Illinois, teaching history
Illinois schools are not required to teach a class in the state’s history. Perhaps as a result, you may be surprised to learn that Illinois at one time allowed slavery. But Darrel Dexter, a historian and high school social studies teacher in Tamms, has been researching, writing about and teaching the history of slavery in Illinois for years. His book about the topic, “Bondage in Egypt, Slavery in Southern Illinois,” was published by Southeast Missouri State University in 2011, and described by one academic reviewer as “the most comprehensive account to date of racial slavery in Illinois.” I first met Dexter at the public library in Anna, Illinois, while reporting on its history as a sundown town. Since then, he’s helped me better understand the parts of our state’s history often left out of classroom curricula and, as a result, the public’s understanding of Illinois history.
I recently spoke with Dexter just ahead of the Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates the ending of slavery. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
In learning about the Civil War, we typically learn there were “slave states” and “free states.” In what ways does Illinois complicate those seemingly clear-cut definitions?
Illinois is what I would call a quasi-slave state. And what’s surprising to people is that it existed here within the law. It begins with the colonial slave laws that came from France (because Illinois was a French territory). And so slavery, at least the enslavement of Africans and then later African American people, started in the French settlements, at least as early as 1720, maybe even before that. And then the Northwest Ordinance (an act that provided a path for much of the Great Lakes region to be admitted to the Union) stated that there shall be neither slavery nor indentured servitude, nor involuntary servitude, except as the punishment of crime. And so people seem to think, “Well, that does it for slavery.” But people still brought slaves in, in violation of the law.
But then as early as 1803, a loophole was created that [essentially] said: “Bring your slaves to Illinois. It’s fine. Just go through the formality of an indenture contract.” Some contracts were for 99 years.
But most indentured people really weren’t given a choice. If your master, or someone who’s claimed to be your master, or has told you they were your master for, you know, 20, 30, 40 years, tells you to put your mark [signature] on a paper that says you’re willing to continue as my indentured servant, it’s not likely that someone would refuse.
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