Law school restores Illinois slavery history
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Marion Brickors was a free man from Kaskaskia, "coal black with a scar one inch long near his right eye," according to the records in Illinois' Randolph County.
Phebe had a mole under her left ear and was "slender made." William Thomas Porter had a "scar on his right thigh from a broad axe." Mumford Jones was 60 years old and had been born into a free family in North Carolina, then came to Illinois with his wife and their nine children.
Those four were among 101 African-Americans who lived in pre-Civil War Illinois who were missing from the Illinois State Archives' online servitude and emancipation records database. That absence was noted recently by UI law professor Lea VanderVelde, who is now working with the state archives to make those records more complete and accurate.
The 10-year-old database is maintained by the Illinois Secretary of State's office and is a trove of information for history and legal scholars like VanderVelde, and for African-American families tracing their genealogies. Karl Moore, a senior archivist in the Illinois state archives, said the records are in part a legacy of a time when the region was inhabited by its original French settlers in the mid-18th century and slavery was legal.
Records of Black inhabitants of the region were kept over the next century to comply with various federal, territorial, and state laws that required free blacks to register with local counties. For instance, Moore says the records kept track of indentured servants -- a de facto form of slavery in an American territory that was supposed to be free -- and how long each servant's indenture would last. Illinois also passed a law shortly after statehood in 1819 that required all free Blacks to register as such, with an eyewitness testifying to their freedom, or a written record of their manumission.
Moore says slavery, indenture, and Free Negro registration records have been found that were filed between the 1720s and 1850s. Nobody knows how many of the records were filed during that time, but many were lost over the years through natural disaster or courthouse fire or just plain old decay. No doubt, many are still sitting in boxes waiting to be discovered. But enough had been found in courthouses through the years that the state archives collected them and built the database in 2000.
The database provides fascinating insight into the lives of African-Americans in the early days of the Midwest, when slavery was still legal, or was disguised as indentured servitude. Because photography did not yet exist, various physical characteristics of free Blacks were noted in the record so they could be identified.
And so we know that Marion Brickors was coal black, that Phebe was slender made and that Mumford Jones had nine children. All of them registered in the 19th century as free Negroes with officials in Randolph County, their records recently discovered by VanderVelde.
There was also Jack, registered in 1819, an 18-year-old slave who was freed when his owner died and his heirs had no interest in keeping him; Dice, a 45-year old who also registered in 1819, with scars on her left cheek and right breast who was "of a stout make;" and Francis Booby, a Creole slave who fought so well for the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans that he was given his freedom by Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1815. Five years later, Booby had moved up the Mississippi River to the new state of Illinois and presented himself at the Randolph County courthouse to register as a free Negro. The recorder noted in his register that the new resident had been freed by no less than Gen. Jackson himself.
"The human aspect of it is overwhelming," says Leigh Wickell, a UI law student who worked on the project with VanderVelde. "You realize that these are real people who led real lives, and you wonder, what kind of lives did they lead?"
VanderVelde uses the database extensively in her research into slavery and the lives of African Americans before the Civil War. The work also takes her to courthouses, libraries, and public archives across the Midwest looking for documents, and it was during one of these visits in 2010 that she noted the discrepancies between the records she found in archives and the records on the Illinois database.
"Not only were the numbers off, there were very, very few persons listed in both the indenture column and the eventual emancipation column," she says. "The only way to check this information was to read through everything in the courthouse registers making notes of discrepancies."
So she and Wickell reviewed copies of 1,126 records from St. Clair, Madison, and Randolph Counties, all located along the Mississippi River and one of the first heavily settled parts of the state. The work wasn't easy because the records are fragile and handwritten in a cramped, 19th century style that almost looks like a foreign language to 21st century eyes.
"Determining the person's name is the most difficult part because the writing is so hard to read," Wickell says.
Based on how the person is described in the register, they determine the legal status of the person and compare that to their status in the database. In most every case, they found that person was listed under "emancipation," implying they were being freed, even though they had already been freed.
"The database was built using terms that were used most frequently to describe the records, but those terms did not always accurately reflect what the records indicated," says Moore.
VanderVelde and Wickell identified their discrepancies in a report and suggested that the category "emancipation" be changed to "Free Black Residency Licenses" to improve their accuracy.
They also found 101 new entries from Randolph County to add to the website. Moore says the archivist's office is making the corrections and additions.
Wickell was glad to participate in a project that made a small but important contribution to the historical record.
"Not revising these records would have been like revising history," she says.
The Illinois servitude and emancipation database can be found online at http://www.ilsos.gov/GenealogyMWeb/servfrm.html.