Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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


In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.


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 communty'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 sate. 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 woman 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 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 workers, 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 Dipples Bean Cregg. 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. 

2 comments:

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

    ReplyDelete
  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

    ReplyDelete

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