Did Black Lives Matter in Early Illinois? Voices from the Brink of Slavery and Freedom

A Road Scholar Program by Caroline Kisiel

Caroline Kisiel headshot

Aug 13, 2024


DeWitt County Genealogical Society
310 N Quincy St
Clinton, IL 61727



In 1818, Illinois entered the United States with a Constitution declaring itself a free state, following the guidance of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which outlawed slavery north of the Ohio River. But slavery’s roots went back centuries in the region, and its hold on the young state was strong. In the first years of statehood, the Illinois legislature included a number of proslavery advocates who made a bold attempt to change the Constitution to allow slavery. They had already succeeded in building in limited slavery clauses into the 1818 Constitution which were to sunset in 1825, and they now wished to expand this foothold. Others vehemently fought against them, ultimately prevailing to preserve the free state.

Who were these voices advocating for a permanent constitutional change to allow slavery? And who stood up against them, preserving the free state of Illinois we know? And ultimately, in what ways did these opposing voices support Black lives, or not? This performance-presentation offers a dramatic reading/adaptation of the voices of three key proslavery figures (Ninian Edwards, Territorial Governor; Joseph B. Phillips, secretary of the Illinois Territory; and Adolphus Frederick Hubbard, proslavery delegate) and three antislavery figures (Edward Coles, second governor of Illinois; Nicholas Hansen, anti-convention legislator; and Morris Birkbeck, English emigrant and Illinois Secretary of State) from this period.

While stories of prominent antislavery figures from later years are more widely recognized (Elijah Lovejoy, Abraham Lincoln), the very early years of statehood were marked by a significant struggle for and against slavery that illuminates the inheritance of what some called “old slavery” in the region, and what was often benignly masked as “servitude.” Historical records offer these six figures’ words, which will be given a voice today through this performance-presentation.

But their voices are only part of the story, as their rationales for or against slavery were not simply black and white, so to speak. Alongside selections from these voices of the past, a presentation with visuals will illuminate the complexities of their rationales, their backgrounds and views, and the forces that shaped them.

Northwest ordinance

Citation: Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio; 7/13/1787; Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774 – 1789; Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, Record Group 360; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.


Parking is accessible from either Center or Quincy Streets. The building is fully accessible.  Use the elevator or stairs to the lower-level where the Genealogical Society archives are located.


This event is Free and Open to the public. For more information, please contact David Harris at dharrisfc@gmail.com.

Learn more about Caroline Kisiel, this program, and how to book it here