In June 1864 meetings were held in Springfield to collect money and goods to aid newly-freed slaves-then commonly referred to as freedmen—in the South. Such efforts saw what might be considered unlikely success in wartime Illinois, a state which had from its earliest years statutes controlling the liberties of African Americans. Hundreds if not thousands contributed to the cause of meeting what were seen as the physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of people living new lives created by the war.
Within a week of President Lincoln’s announcement in September 1862 of a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation residents of Belvidere (Boone County) gathered to consider ways to assist ex-slaves. A proposal that freed blacks be brought to Belvidere and provided with work met some resistance. Expressing fear that the new residents might soon become public wards, some demanded that employers sign a kind of contract guaranteeing consistent employment. P. E. Whitman, who had taught in the South, spoke in favor of all forms of aid and celebrated the “great and glorious era in our country’s history… the slave was being protected by the Government instead of the Government being his oppressor.” Another speaker called helping the freed people a great work of humanity “because any slave which made his escape from the rebels, if recaptured, was shot.”
At the same time “two car loads” of African Americans, mostly under age sixteen, arrived in Elgin (Kane County). The “larger portion found employment in the families about there in a short time.” It was noted that “a loafer” soon used the Illinois law prohibiting the entry of blacks into the state to swear out a warrant against the army chaplain in charge of the group. He was warned that the chaplain worked under military orders “and concluded that discretion was the better part of valor, and sneaked off to a neighboring grog shop” without making an official complaint.
Local work Activity to aid freedmen could be found through most of Illinois. Religious congregations raised funds and collected goods. In a few towns societies formed specifically to assist freedmen, most organizing themselves along the lines of local soldier aid societies.
The operations of the Galena (Jo Daviess County) society were reported regularly in the Daily Advertiser. In early December 1863 members of five Protestant congregations joined to organize their work in behalf of “the needy ex-slaves of the South” and “to secure to them all the blessings of Christian civilization.” Elections resulted in women holding all offices and directorships, with men serving on the executive committee. In its first year of operation the society raised $231 in cash (at a time when an army private’s pay was $16 per month), and sent to the South six large boxes of clothing wroth about $100 each. Two parcels of clothing remained in Illinois, being sent to Quincy.
Not surprisingly Illinois African Americans took the cause to heart. Black women in Chicago formed the Colored Ladies’ Freedmen’s Aid Society in late 1863. An early fundraising event featured speeches by a woman abolitionist “of the Garrisonian school” and “Sergeant Bargwett” of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The women quickly went to work – “They meet twice a week—make new garments—mend old ones—cut down large ones—and make small ones.” Black residents of Jo Daviess County collected and boxed clothing to be distributed through Galena’s freedmen’s aid organization. On January 2, 1866, blacks in Rockford (Winnebago County) held a “Freedmans supper,” which raised $59. The event was promoted in the white community by a local newspaper, which reminded readers that as “the greater part of the Freedmen are the families, the wives and children of the sable soldiers of the Republic, who have fought bravely in defence of the integrity of the old Union, and the supremacy of free principles on many a bloody battle-field, it is evident that our efforts to aid them should have claims as well on our patriotism as our humanity.”
Regionally organized freedmen’s aid In late 1863 the Rev. H. W. Cobb of the Western Freedmen Aid Association spoke at Springfield’s Second Presbyterian Church, long known for its antislavery sentiments. The society worked to coordinate aid efforts in states of the Old Northwest, much as the Northwestern Sanitary Commission worked in soldiers’ aid. A local reporter noted that the “object of the Society is to attend to the physical and intellectual wants of those slaves who have been declared free by the proclamation of the President, by colonizing them upon lands in the South.” The society sought donations of crockery, agricultural implements, in fact “anything useful” to such a social experiment. The perceived importance of religious and general education showed clearly in the 1865 donation by the Peoria Freedmen’s Aid Committee of a second hand Sabbath school library of 205 volumes, 246 Sabbath school papers, and 65 primary grammar books.
In July 1864 the Northwestern Commission began publication of a monthly journal titled The Freedmen’s Bulletin. It published a constitution that could be used in organizing local societies, and letters from clergymen and teachers working in the South describing their successful efforts. Perhaps most interesting to the student of freedmen’s aid efforts in Illinois are the detailed monthly reports of donations of cash and goods received from small towns across the state.
In December 1864 a “Freedmen’s Fair” was held in Chicago to assist the aid association. Patterned on the sanitary fairs that raised funds and awareness of soldiers’ aid, this event did good by allowing people to have fun. The fair was described by the Tribune as a symbol of the fact that the “mountains of prejudice are so far broken down that the movement has received the hearty support of patriots throughout the West…”
Looking to the future When in early 1865 Congress sent to the states for ratification a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery in the United States, some Illinois freedmen’s aid groups celebrated very publicly. On February 10, 1865, the Peoria Women’s National League held an entertainment to “benefit the Freedmen, and for the purpose of ratifying the glorious amendment to the Constitution of the United States, forever abolishing slavery throughout our land, and also the repeal of the infamous black laws of our own State.” It contained the traditional musical numbers, tableaux, sale tables, and refreshment tables found at most church, school, or association fairs. “Let every one who feels like rejoicing over this late triumph of ideas… contribute his mite to the comfort of the poor starving freedmen of the South.”
With the coming of peace in early 1865 relief activities—for soldiers, their families, and for freedmen—dropped from the minds of many Illinoisans. Others continued the work, though with less publicity, perhaps understanding that Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” was not so much an event but an ongoing process.