Blacks were a significant part of Abraham Lincoln's Springfield community. At the time of his arrival in 1837, Springfield had a black population of twenty-six, about one percent of the total population of 1,500. Six of those twenty-six were slaves. By the time of Lincoln's departure in 1861, the black population had grown to 234 about 5 percent of the total population of approximately 5,000. These few Springfield blacks had an impact on Lincoln that was far greater than their numbers imply.
Nevertheless, the presence of blacks in early Springfield
and their relationships with and influence on Lincoln have been largely ignored
or minimized by historians. Why?
|This daguerreotype photograph is the earliest confirmed picture of Abraham Lincoln, reportedly shot in 1846 by Nicholas H. Shepherd shortly after Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives.|
The simple answer is that most blacks as well as whites were illiterate and therefore left little personal written evidence of their existence. As one Springfield black historian put it more than 90 years ago: “The history of the colored people of Sangamon County, like the sources of the common law, is shrouded in some mystery. The writer is confronted with an embarrassing lack of available data and must draw his material from the memories of such of the older settlers as remain, and to a still larger extent, from their descendants.”
Even at this late date, the shroud of mystery surrounding Springfield blacks has not been removed by Lincoln historians. They have either overlooked or failed to examine what meager primary evidence does exist. Instead, most have relied upon secondary sources predecessor historians who often recorded incomplete or incorrect information or were silent about the presence of blacks in Lincoln's Springfield.
Nineteenth-century Springfield historians probably judged blacks as unimportant when recording the people and events of Springfield, an attitude that reflected the time and bore a conscious or unconscious prejudice toward blacks as a class or race. And contemporary historians who have relied upon these earlier chroniclers have unintentionally mythologized and romanticized Lincoln and Springfield, painting a city almost devoid of color. That flawed history is based upon four myths:
THE FIRST MYTH: William Fleurville, who arrived in Springfield in 1831, was Springfield's first black resident and Lincoln's sole black personal acquaintance prior to his becoming President.
THE SECOND MYTH: Neither black slavery nor indentured servitude existed in Lincoln's Springfield.
THE THIRD MYTH: Prior to becoming President, Lincoln knew little of black life.
THE FOURTH MYTH: Springfield blacks were passive servants and menials and either incapable of or not interested in speaking out on issues of colonization or racial justice.
To understand the influence of Springfield blacks on the political and social education of the pre-presidential Lincoln, we must first debunk these myths.
THE MYTH OF THE HAITIAN BARBER
The first myth is the incorrect focus on William Fleurville as Springfield's first black resident and as Lincoln's exclusive Springfield black personal acquaintance. He was neither.
Fleurville arrived in Springfield in the fall of 1831, thirteen years after the arrival of at least thirty-two black predecessors. He was not Springfield's first black resident.
Mark Neely's Lincoln Encyclopedia compared Lincoln's black "personal acquaintances" in Springfield vs. Washington, D.C., and concluded that Lincoln's personal acquaintance" with blacks increased when he moved from Springfield to Washington. To support his conclusion, Neely named one Springfield black, William Fleurville, and three Washington blacks who were servants at the White House as examples of Lincoln's "personal acquaintances." True, Fleurville was a personal acquaintance of Lincoln, but Lincoln's Springfield black acquaintances during his twenty-four-year residency included others, who were at least as well known to the future president as were those black White House servants cited by Neely.
These may seem to be trivial points of contention, and they would be if the sole point were competition over the claim to "first-ness" or "personal acquaintanceship." But they have greater significance. Historical acceptance of Fleurville as the city's first black and Lincoln's only black friend in Springfield has made it unnecessary for historians to look for evidence of the presence of other blacks in Springfield either prior to 1831 the date of Fleurville's arrival or after Lincoln's arrival in 1837. Fleurville has become the historian's token ante-bellum, Springfield black, whereas other blacks have remained largely faceless and nameless. As a result, an important component of Lincoln's Springfield environment has been ignored.
THE MYTH OF A “FREE” SPRINGFIELD
The second myth is that black slavery and indentured servitude didn't exist in Lincoln's Springfield. W. T. Casey, a Springfield black, made this erroneous assertion in his 1926 History of the Colored People. But slavery and indentured servitude existed in Springfield, both before and during Lincoln's residency.
Henry Kelly the patriarch of the first family to settle at what became Springfield brought at least one slave with him: "Negro Jack." On March 18, 1822, Henry and his wife, Mary, sold eight-year-old Negro Jack for $300. Jack was probably Springfield's first black resident and slave.
Two of the four original proprietors of the town of Springfield, John Taylor and Thomas Cox, owned black slaves while living in Springfield. Cox, who moved to Springfield in 1823 to become the first Registrar of the Land Office, owned at least two female slaves, Nance and Dice, and most probably a young male slave, Reuben. Nance and Dice were sold by the Sheriff of Sangamon County at public auction in 1827 in order to satisfy Cox's debts. Later, Nance would be the subject of two Illinois Supreme Court cases involving the issue of slavery and the ownership of slaves by Illinois residents. One of the cases, Bailey vs. Cromwell, was argued by Lincoln.
In 1827 the Sangamon County Commissioners' Court levied a tax "on slaves and indentures or registered Negro or mulatto servants," which offers evidence that Springfield slaves were considered personal property."
The 1830 census the last taken before Lincoln's arrival listed blacks in two categories: "free colored" and "slaves." The Springfield portion of the census lists nineteen blacks, nine of whom were categorized as "slaves" under the names of their masters: John Taylor, is listed as owning three slaves. Dr. John Todd, Mary Lincoln's uncle, is listed as owning five slaves. Temperance Watson, who lived on land where Oak Ridge Cemetery is now situated, is listed as owning one slave.
The evidence is clear that slavery was still a part of Springfield life at the time of Lincoln's arrival in 1837. It continued for some time thereafter. The 1840 census revealed that Springfield's population of 2,579 included 115 blacks about 4.4 percent of the total population. Six were "slaves" and the remaining 109 were "free colored." Lincoln knew and had significant personal contacts with at least three of the slave owners, James Bell, Ninian Edwards, and William May. James Bell, listed as owning one young female slave, was a member of the trading firm of James Bell and Joshua Speed. Lincoln represented Bell in at least three legal cases, one each in 1838, 1839, and 1842.
Ninian Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s brother-in-law, was listed as owning one young male slave.
William May was listed as owning one young female slave. May had emigrated from Kentucky to Springfield around 1829 when he was appointed the third Registrar of the Springfield Land Office. He was a lawyer and a partner of Stephen T. Logan. He was also a surveyor and a minister. He was the first County Clerk/Recorder of Sangamon County. From 1834 to 1839, May was a Congressman for whom Lincoln voted on October 27, 1834. In 1842, May was elected mayor of Springfield.
Slavery did exist in Lincoln’s Springfield and Lincoln was aware of its existence.
As an adjunct to slavery, a system of voluntary or indentured servitude flourished in Springfield both prior to and after Lincoln's arrival. The system was legally permitted by the "black Laws" adopted by Illinois' first legislature in 1819, and existed until February 7, 1865. Legally, an indenture is a contract. Indentured servitude was evidenced by a written contract between two persons providing that one person was to perform services for the other person for a given period of time. "Voluntary or indentured servitude" became a euphemism for Illinois slavery and it is often difficult to distinguish between the status of a black characterized as a slave and one characterized as an indentured servant.
Many of Lincoln's Springfield friends and acquaintances, including his in-laws, the Edwards and Todds, participated in the indenture system. This author has found seven Springfield written contracts of service indentures dated during the period from 1835-1845. The earliest, twenty-six-year-old Ninian Edwards, then a new resident of Springfield, and Hepsey, an eleven-year-old mulatto orphan girl. The terms of Hepsey's indenture were typical, providing that she was "...to learn the art and mystery of domestic housewifery and serve Edwards until the age of eighteen." In turn, Edwards was to provide Hepsey with sufficient meat, drink, washing, lodging, and apparel suitable and proper for such an apprentice, and needful medical attention. He was to "cause her to read" and, at the end of her term, he was to give her a new Bible and two new suits of clothes suitable and proper for summer and winter wear.
Hepsey’s indenture was in force on the evening of November 4, 1842, when Reverend Charles Dresser performed the marriage of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln in the Edwards' home at the southwest corner of Charles and Second streets. Hepsey was probably present in the household at the time of their marriage.
Dr. John Todd, Mary Lincoln's uncle, had both a slave and an indentured servant. On April 18, 1836, he entered into an indenture with Elizabeth, an eight-year-old black girl, with the consent of her mother, Phoebe, one of Todd’s slaves.
In April of 1838, Reverend Charles Dresser moved to Springfield to become Rector of the Episcopal Church. Dresser was a New Englander born in Pomfret, Connecticut, in 1800. He graduated from Brown University in 1823.
A month after Dresser's arrival in Springfield, he entered into an indenture for the domestic labor of Rhoda Jane, a fifteen-year-old black girl. In the spring of 1839, he purchased a lot at Eighth and Jackson streets and constructed a house for his family. Rhoda probably lived in this house. Six years later, Lincoln purchased the house and moved his family there.
There are four other indentures in the period 1841 to 1843: Nine-year-old Sidney Mclntry, a mulatto girl, to Nathanial A. Rankin; eight-year-old Josephine to James F. Owings, Clerk of the United States District Court at Springfield; sixteen-year-old James to William Hickman, a justice of the peace who in 1860 lived at the northwest corner of Eighth and Cook streets, two blocks south of Lincoln's residence; and seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Jones to Robert Irwin, Lincoln's banker.
Although these indentures are interesting, they provide no insight on how indentured servants were treated by their masters. One can glimpse Springfield's mid-Nineteenth-Century community standard for acceptable discipline of black servants, however, from an entry in the May 1843 Session minutes of the First Presbyterian Church, Mary Lincoln's church.
The Session considered the case of church member Dorothea Grant, a young, single mother or widow with two young children. Dorothea was cited for "Unchristian conduct in the treatment of a colored girl bound to her." She had whipped the girl with a cowhide.
Dorothea defended her conduct by explaining that:
"...She had been in the habit of correcting the girl when she thought her conduct required it, and did not think that she was correcting her any more severely than she had done at other times; she was not aware at the time that any marks were caused on her body by this whipping & can account for it only from its being done with a different instrument from what she had formerly used." (The instrument formerly used is not revealed.)
The Session committee reported that Dorothea "acknowledged that the whipping was too severe and not accompanied with that mercy which the Christian should exercise, and she was sincerely sorry for the reproach she had brought in the church." The Session meeting concluded with prayer.
A second example of ecclesiastical discipline is that imposed by the Second Presbyterian Church, sometimes called the abolitionist church. That church dealt severely with its members who purchased or dealt in "human beings," as evidenced by the 1843 excommunication of member George Day for such activity.
In addition to slaves and indentured servants, there were a number of free blacks living in the homes of Springfield white families where they acted as servants. Edward D. Baker, Richard F. Barrett, Jacob Bunn, William Butler, John Calhoun, Levi Davis, Benjamin Edwards, William Grimsley, Virgil Hickox, Lawrason Levering, John A. McClernand, Edmund Roberts, David Spear, and Samuel H. Treat all had black servants living in their homes.
The evidence is clear. The 1830 and 1840 census slave entries, the indentures, and the ecclesiastical discipline of church members substantiate that slavery and indentured servitude existed in Lincoln's Springfield.
THE THIRD MYTH; YOUR OBEDIENT SERVANTS
The third myth is that the Lincoln of 1860 knew little of black life. This assertion was made by Benjamin Quarles in his 1962 book, Lincoln and the Negro. Quarles was the first historian to attempt to assess Lincoln's personal relationship with blacks, but his conclusions about Lincoln's relationship to Springfield's blacks were flawed. After making a cursory review of Lincoln's twenty-four Sprin; field years and briefly noting his relationships with blacks, Quarles concluded that:
"The Lincoln of 1860 knew the Negro of dialect story, minstrel stage, and sea chantey' and did not have a "rounded knowledge of the colored people." Lincoln "knew little of Negro life" or "John Doe, colored."
Quarles' observations could lead one to incorrectly conclude that either Springfield's blacks had little to do with Lincoln or that they were not representative of blacks elsewhere in America the amorphous John Doe, colored. There is little, if any, evidence to support either conclusion.
As pointed out earlier, some of Lincoln's closest associates possessed black slaves and indentured servants. It is reasonable to conclude that Lincoln observed, talked to, and knew the slaves and indentured servants of Ninian Edwards, the black slaves of Dr. John Todd, the indentured servants of Reverend Dresser and Robert lrwin, and the servants in the homes of Edward D. Baker (for whom the Lincoln's named their second son, Edward Wallace), and William Butler. The Lincoln household itself was served by blacks. Two black women "Aunt" Ruth Stanton and Maria Vance worked in the Lincoln home. Maria, or "Aunt Maria" as she was called, served as cook, laundress, and maid for the Lincolns from 1850 to 1860, a longer period than any other servant known to have been employed by the Lincolns either in Springfield or Washington.
By late Twentieth-Century standards, the Lincolns lived in an integrated neighborhood. In 1860, at least twenty-one blacks, about 10 percent of Springfield's black population, lived within a three-block radius of the Lincoln home.
Jameson Jenkins, a fifty-year-old North Carolina native who drove Lincolns carriage from the Chenery House to the Great Western Railroad Station when Lincoln left Springfield for Washington, was a neighbor, along with his family of two, and boarders Aunt Jane Pelham, a seventy-five-year-old I mulatto washer woman, and Quintan Watkins.
John Jackson, a fifty-two-year-old white-washer and Virginia native, his wife Jenny, and their five children, as well as a lady named Diana Tyler, were also Lincoln's neighbors. On February 13, 1854, Jenny was received into membership of the First Presbyterian Church Mary Lincoln's church. David King, a twenty-six-year-old Virginia native, and his family of five were also neighbors of the Lincoln family.
Three black servant women lived in the homes of their employers within three blocks of the Lincoln home. Lucy Butcher, a twenty-six-year-old Virginia native, was a servant in at the residence of Issac A. Hawley. Rebecca Smith, an eighteen-year-old mulatto, was a servant at the Jacob Bunn residence. Charlotte Sims was a servant at the John A. McClernand residence.
Lincoln certainly knew of the day-to-day life of Springfield slaves, indentured servants, and free blacks. His experiences and knowledge of Springfield blacks were much broader than Quarles' conclusions.
A corollary to the third myth is that Lincoln's observations of blacks while visiting friends and relatives in Kentucky and while residing at the White House were more significant than his observations of and relationships with Springfield's blacks during his residency in the capital city.
Quarles found particular importance in Lincoln's two visits to Kentucky, one of twenty-one days in August of 1841 at the Farmington plantation of his most intimate friend, Joshua F. Speed; and a second of about twenty-three days in November of 1847 to Mary's family, the Todds, in Lexington. Quarles speculated that Lincoln viewed the slave pens at Lexington and asserted that Lincoln was served by black servants at the Speed plantation and saw slavery in operation. Quarles further speculated that it is possible the Speeds assigned a slave to Lincoln for his personal needs.
Lincoln spent a total of forty-tour days in making these Kentucky visits. In contrast, there are 8,698 days in Lincoln's Springfield years. Quarles, however, made little mention of them and nothing of the presence of either slaves or indentured servants in Springfield. He speculated not at all about Lincoln's relationship with Springfield blacks, who were certainly more impressionable on Lincoln than the slaves he observed hypothetically in Kentucky.
THE FOURTH MYTH OF BLACK ACQUIESCENCE
The fourth myth is that Springfield blacks were menials and servants incapable of activism on issues of racial justice. David Donald's Lincoln, published in 1995, made this claim:
"Of nearly 5,000 inhabitants of Springfield in 1850, only 171 were blacks, most of whom labored in menial or domestic occupations.... These were not people who could speak out boldly to say that they were as American as any whites, that they had no African roots, and that they did not want to leave the United States."
There are at least three examples of Springfield black activism that contradict Donald's passive characterization of Springfield blacks. The first is that of Springfield blacks annually celebrating the anniversary of the 1834 emancipation of 800,000 slaves in the British West Indies. One such celebration was held August 2, 1858, and the Springfield Journal reported that, "the colored people of our city...celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of the British West Indies emancipation. They formed a procession and with music and banners, marched through the principal streets. Then they proceeded to Kelly s Grove, where they had a number of speeches."
Lincoln was present in Springfield on the date of this celebration.
The following year on August 1st, a Monday and presumably a work day, the Journal reported that "They [Springfield blacks] went out to the Fair ground, where speeches were delivered," and P. L. Donnegan spoke on "West India Emancipation," and Reverend Myers spoke on "Sabbath Schools."
"After this audience were dismissed till after refreshment. It was amusing to see every one take their baskets and retire on the blue grass, to partake their picnic dinner. After which the audience was called on to rally around the stand to hear more speeches… A young man from Belleville, John W. Menard, Jr. came to the stand. His voice is very strong and his manner impressive. Subject 'American Slavery," which he painted in its darkest hues, and gave able remarks in defense of Liberty and equality. His speech was truly the best of the day; after which all retired with hearty cheers for Menard, Fred [Erick] Douglass, and others."
Lincoln was present in Springfield on this date.
The second example is that of thirty-five-year-old Springfield barber and Baptist elder Samuel S. Ball, an black who, in 1848, traveled to the African Bepublic of Liberia. Upon his return, Ball made a written report of the country's advantages as a place for blacks to relocate. The plan of relocation, known as colonization, was considered a possible solution to the racism and legal discrimination experienced by Illinois blacks.
Ball's adventure began in August 1847, when he attended the annual meeting of the Colored Baptist Association in Madison County, Illinois. The Association reviewed reports on the "condition of the Republic of Liberia favorable to us in America" and resolved to "...send Elder S.S. Ball to Liberia, as an agent to inquire into the conditions of the aforesaid country, and to report to this Association on his return, provided means can be raised and procured to defray his expenses."
Ball accepted the mission and in preparation for his visit to Liberia obtained a letter of introduction from Illinois Governor August C. French, a supporter of the colonization movement, as was Lincoln at one time. Governor French's letter stated that he had personally known Mr. Ball for some time and regarded him to be a man of strictest integrity and veracity and "worthy of the encouragement and confidence of all friends of colonization."
Ball's April 11, 1848 departure from Baltimore for Liberia was reported by the Springfield Journal: "S. S. Ball, a very respectable colored man, late of this city, left Baltimore in a schooner on the April 11th for Liberia, for the purposes of examining that country as an asylum for free blacks."
Ball arrived in Liberia on May 16, 1848. By August 24, 1848, he had returned to America and his homecoming appearance before the annual meeting of the Colored Baptist Association was reported as follows:
"Friday morning, August 25, intelligence being brought to the Association of the arrival... of Elder Samuel S. Ball, our missionary to Africa, whereupon the Association immediately adjourned to receive him... and conduct him to the preaching stand... Elder Ball responded with much feeling, after which in the shaking of hands, many tears were shed for joy, and praises were offered to God for his kind providence. Saturday at 3 p.m. was appointed for Elder Ball to make his report to the Association... And after hearing it, it was ordered printed, and it came out in pamphlet form and was sold to defray expenses and to remunerate Elder Ball for his services in the trip. Elder Ball exhibited numerous African curiosities."
Ball's report was published in a thirteen-page pamphlet entitled Liberia, The Condition and Prospects of that Republic; Made from Actual Observation. The report is well organized and well-written, describing the climate, geography, government, agriculture, and religion of Liberia. One cannot read Ball's report without concluding that he was a literate and sophisticated observer entitled to more than the patronizing characterization of "servant" or "menial." At the age of thirty-five, this Virginia-born black left his young family and 3,912 fellow Springfield residents and ventured across the Atlantic to an unknown country for the purpose of determining if it would be suitable for settlement by blacks. He was obviously disturbed by the condition of black life and concluded there might be a better life elsewhere. He took affirmative steps to investigate one alternative.
Back in Springfield, Ball went about his daily life, which included earning a living as a barber, cleaner, and bath-room operator a Springfield niche for black males discovered by Ball and his business competitor, William Fleurville. Ball's business was located on the south side of the square and in close proximity to Lincoln's law office at Sixth and Adams streets. During the period 1849 through 1851, the Springfield Illinois State Journal printed a number of advertisements for Ball's barbershop. One such advertisement on March 28, 1849, stated this his shop would be open at all times from Monday morning until Saturday night and would have on hand "Ball's celebrated Restorative, so famous for the restoration of hair, and prcventa-tive of baldness."
Ball continued to advocate colonization. In 1851, he spoke at Springfield and St. Louis, where he declared: "I am the warm friend and enthusiastic admirer of Liberia." He described Liberia as "the brightest spot on this earth to the colored man. Liberia not only protects the colored man in the enjoyment of equal rights, but... its institutions fostered merit, developed the moral and intellectual faculties of its citizens, and produced great men."
That same year. Ball drew up a bill for the Illinois State Legislature proposing that the state provide financial support to free Illinois blacks wishing to migrate to Liberia. The Springfield Journal supported Ball's efforts.
On September 16, 1852, at age forty-two, Ball died of typhoid fever. He left a widow and six children, and real estate valued at $1,018.59.
THE ANTI-COLONIZATION MOVEMENT
Not all Springfield blacks favored Ball's colonization efforts. In fact, Ball's opinion was probably in the minority among his fellow Springfield blacks. On February 12, 1858, Lincoln's forty-ninth birthday, the "colored citizens of Springfield" held a public meeting to protest the Dred Scott Decision and to express opposition to the colonization movement.
The meeting was prompted by the Illinois State Colonization Society's request of the State Legislature for money to assist in the resettlement of blacks to Africa and the representation that "some of the most intelligent and enterprising of the people of color in the State of Illinois desire the assistance of the Colonization Society, to enable them to remove to Liberia or some other part of Africa."
Landen C. Coleman, a twenty-eight-year-old Springfield black shoemaker, acted as chairman of the meeting that, by its existence and adoption of a Forman resolution, contradicts Donald's assertion that Springfield blacks "...were not people who could speak out boldly to say that they were as American as any whites, that they had no African roots, and that they did not want to leave the United States." While the entire resolution deserves study, in the interest of space I will quote only a portion:
“After careful inquiry, we have been unable to ascertain that any intelligent man of color either desires to Africa, or requires aid for such an enterprise.
"We have no desire to exchange the broad prairies, fertile soil, healthful climate, and Christian civilization of Illinois, for the dangerous navigation of the wide ocean, the tangled forests, savage beasts, heathen people, and miasmatic shores of Africa.
"We believe that the operations of the Colonization Society are calculated to excite prejudices against us, and to impel ignorant or ill-disposed persons to take measures for our expulsion from the land of our nativity, from our country and from our homes.
"We do for ourselves, and in behalf of our colored brethren throughout the United States, most earnestly protest against the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Dred Scott, not only because... Scott and his family, were by that decision most unjustly doomed to slavery, but also because the... decision misrepresents the greater charter of American liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and the spirit of the American people, as well as the Constitution of the United States.
"We take the Declaration as the Gospel of freedom; we believe in its great truth, 'that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' We know ourselves to be men, and we claim our rights as such under this '...Declaration' of the Old Thirteen [colonies]. We also claim the right of citizenship in this, the country of our birth. We were born here, and here we desire to die and to be buried. We are not African. The best blood of Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and other State, where our brethren are still held in bondage by their brothers, flows in our veins. We are not, therefore, aliens, either in blood or in race, to the people of the country in which we were born. Why then should we be disenfranchised and denied the rights of citizenship in the north, and those of human nature itself in the south?"
There is no hard evidence to link Lincoln to these three examples of Springfield's black activism. But Lincoln's Springfield was a small town. Did these activities influence Lincoln? If he was influenced by brief glimpses of slavery on visits to Kentucky, as Quarles asserted, then without question the influences of Springfield s black population engaged in the daily routine of life during Lincoln's residency were even more significant.
In reaching conclusions about blacks in Lincoln's Springfield, contemporary Lincoln historians have largely relied upon secondary sources and have thereby unknowingly acquiesced in the omissions and prejudices of the past. Each generation of Lincoln historians has repeated and thereby perpetuated the myth giving us an incomplete picture of Lincoln's Springfield.
It is time to put these myths aside. Historians should take a fresh look at Lincoln, and reconsider some equally entrenched views about the origins, nature, and evolution of his mature views on race, slavery, colonization, abolitionism, emancipation, and black civil rights. Only then will we have a true picture of the significance of blacks as part of Lincoln's Springfield community.
By Richard E. Hart
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 Ante-bellum: occurring or existing before the Civil War.