Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Lost Towns of Illinois - Africa, a settlement in Williamson County, Illinois.


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Africa was a Negro settlement in the northeast corner of Williamson County. It all began when Alexander McCreery came from Kentucky to Thomas Jordan's Settlement, also called Jordan's Fort. which was southeast of modern Thompsonville, Illinois, in 1812, when he was 14 years old. The following year John McCreery, Alexander’s father, followed his son to Illinois.
There are no regular services at the church now, but once a year, on Memorial Day, it is the sight of the community's homecoming.
John brought a number of family slaves to the territory and settled in what became known as Fancy Farms, in Franklin County. The Negros were valued at $10,000 and were held as indentured servants. Under these terms, they were to be freed when they had worked out their worth which complied with the law of the Northwest Territory.
Robert McCreery bought land from the government at twelve and one-half cents an acre, in what was then the southeast corner of Franklin County. On this land, Robert McCreery built homes for the Negroes, and started "Africa". In 1839, the county was divided, and Williamson County established from the southern half of Franklin County. This put "Africa" in Williamson County.

In 1818, when Illinois Territory became the State of Illinois, there was much opposition to slavery: so much, that slavery was barred from the new state by the Constitution. John McCreery decided to take his slaves to Missouri, then a slave state. In 1821, he died. His widow inherited the slaves and they remained her property until her death in 1844.

Alexander McCreery, one of her sons, then inherited the slaves. A resident of Illinois, he went to Missouri to take possession. Upon arrival, he learned that all but one had been kidnapped and hidden in the woods. Their captors were keeping them hidden and watching the road for a chance to run them out of the country and sell them in the South.

With the help of friends, McCreery found his slaves and brought them back from the woods. He found that one of the women was married to Richard Inge, a slave who belonged to a neighbor. Not wanting to separate man and wife, Alexander McCreery purchased Inge for three hundred dollars and brought him along with the others to Illinois.

Upon their arrival in Williamson County, McCreery gave all of them their freedom. They settled in "Africa," where he provided them with land from which to make their living.

In time, the Negroes who were living in Africa." Decided to build a church of their own. Before this, they had attended church at Liberty, a Methodist Church three miles southeast of Thompsonville. They named their new church, which was built in 1851 Locust Grove and affiliated with the Southern Methodist organization. 

Later, these inhabitants of "Africa" built a small schoolhouse and employed white teachers to instruct their children. Walter Kent and Miss Annie Simmons were among the white teachers who taught in the school. In later years, Negro teachers were employed, two of whom were William Harrison and John Patton. A lack of funds caused the discontinuance of the school in 1908. The district then was split up and combined with surrounding districts. Now the children go to school with their white neighbors. Later, funds were raised and the district indebtedness was paid, but the Negro school never has been re-established.

One of the freed slaves, Richard Inge, was a shoemaker. He went to Old Frankfort, nearby, and "hired himself" to Ralph Elstum. His shoes were made by hand, of course, and wooden pegs used. The customer stood on a piece of leather, and Inge marked around his feet to get the size.

Inge was industrious and a good workman. When he had saved enough money, he repaid McCreery for the sum spent to buy his freedom from his Missouri owner. Later, he saved enough to buy eighty acres of land near the Negro settlement.

A woman from Indiana with a small son came to "Africa." Unable to support the boy, she gave him to Inge and his wife, who raised him. Jimmy Hargraves, this boy, still lives in "Africa." He does not know his exact age but believes he is more than ninety years old.

Hargraves proved to his foster parents that he appreciated all that they did for him. A good worker, he took care of them as long as they lived. He was a good cook, serving as camp cook for the railroad construction crews that built the road from Benton to Thompsonville. For twenty-five years he was a chef in a large Chicago hotel. Many wedding cakes and special dinners were prepared by him for the white residents of the communities around "Africa."

Just prior to the Civil War, feeling ran high, and some Southern sympathizers warned the Negroes of "Africa" to leave their homes. Frightened, three wagon loads of them, with most of their family possessions, started up the old Sarahsville road, past Liberty Church, on their way out of the region.

It was Sunday morning, and the church members gathered for Sunday School found out what was taking place. They persuaded the Negroes to return to their homes, promising that they would not be molested. The Negroes turned back, and the Southern sympathizers were not heard from again.

These Negroes of "Africa" never have been a detriment to the communities around them. They have been self-supporting and have attended to their own affairs. Some have taken advantage of all the opportunities that have come their way. Several had finished high school, and a few have attended college. Miss Ary Dimple Bean completed her high school work at Marion and was graduated, in 1924, from a two-year college at Southern Illinois Normal University.

The settlement was not as large as it once was, but at the present time, it covers 540 acres, with about forty persons living there. In all the years of its existence, it never was Incorporated as a town. The inhabitants being almost universally farmers. Their economic status is now and always has been up to the level of white citizens. Jerry Bean was the most progressive farmer in the settlement at this time.

Today three farms are owned by Negro people but none live in the community. These farms are owned by Allens, Adams, and Dimples Craig. The church is still standing but it has been vandalized by inconsiderate people many times. There are no regular services at the church but once a year, on Memorial Day, it is the sight of a homecoming. This is a day when friends meet when graves of loved ones are decorated with flowers, and barbequed meat is prepared and sold to raise money for the church and cemetery upkeep.

The churchyard grave markers bear the names of old pioneers of the settlement — Stewart, Harrison, and Martin. Morris Stewart, buried in 1890 seems to be the first burial. However, there is an older burial ground southeast of the church.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

5 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Have never heard of this before. Thanks for presenting it.

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  2. I would like to share this with the African American History Museum in my hometown of Springfield. I wrote a feature on the museum two years ago for our local newsweekly Illinois Times. The AAHM presented an exhibit on New Philadelphia, the A-A town near Barry Illinois and Free Frank McWhorter (I think that’s right- but know there was a settlement), but I don’t recall seeing anything on this “Africa” settlement. Fascinating. I’m so happy to have found this site - thanks so much for the info- Tom Irwin

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  3. David W. Jent aka Jackson AvidFriday, February 14, 2020 at 3:17:00 AM CST

    The church mentioned was organized in 1851, once stood upon the present cemetery grounds was actually destroyed by fire during the early 1980's, and was never replaced as a church structure. However, the family built a shed on site to assist with the large family BBQ Family Reunion gathering held each Memorial Day Holiday Weekend each year. It has been stated that family descendants have come from around the world, to celebrate that which they have descended but also the heritage from which they continue. Having grown up on our family farm in near proximity, this was once located down a somewhat overgrown dead end lane back to the church and cemetery site (now a thru county road) I can vividly recall being on a church youth hayride down that eery overgrown lane back to the church site, and many of our sponsors hiding along the lane as we embarked in that hay wagon jumping from the woods terrifying us, as it was one of those darkest of nights. Unbeknownst to us, as we came upon that church site of this historic African American Methodist Episcipal church structure, all that remained where a chimney and a still simmering charred piling of remains, as the building was said to have been torched a few days before. I can still here the gasps of our group even over that tractor engine rumble seeing that ever smoldering pile of rubble.....so coming to that narrow end of a lane that circled where that once church house stood, was that chimney and simmering remains with those tombstones that surrounded it, made for one hell of a frightful and still vivid memory as a youth in my memory still yet today.

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  4. Jerry Bean is my Great Grandfather! I currently own the land where the graveyard is and church stood.

    Correction: Dimples Craig not Dipples

    Michael Craig

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  5. I am a descendant of Alexander McCreery and have heard versions of this story before. Thank you for your effort on this! I hope to visit his and other grave sites in the area soon with my family. Is there a library in Thompsonville or surrounding towns that have pictures of the people and areas mentioned?

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