The following article was first published in the ISGS Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 2, pp. 100-106, Summer 1996.
Tracing African-Americans in Elgin and Kane County
P.O. Box 1352, Elgin, IL 60121
It has been nearly seven years since I started tracing the genealogies of Elgin's African-American community. I was working in a sports card shop when a black man asked for a particular basketball card as the card's athlete was in town to be married to a young lady, a young lady of a prominent family. None of us had heard of the family and I wondered, "Why not? Why were we so ignorant of the backgrounds of the African-American community?" They didn't just arrive in town yesterday . . . and so, as it turned out, they hadn't.
It was difficult to start my research, as all of the African-Americans I knew had little or no knowledge of their ethnic heritage, or just were not interested.
About two years ago, I had a breakthrough when I made contact with two willing and knowledgeable people. Juanita "Sis" Smith Anderson and Mary Wheeler West, both in their 70s, gave me enough framework to start building family trees. They also filled in details that I couldn't have gotten anywhere else.
With a notebook full of information I went to the local cemetery for death dates, then to the library microfilm department for obituaries. I was rapidly collecting more names.
The Bluff City Cemetery staff was able to supply exact locations of unmarked graves and a great deal of information was found on their file cards. They are not yet on a computer database so have preserved much non-standard information.
In the old days, many poor blacks had to settle for wooden markers or nothing. Some still have no markers. Those that have limestone markers have a special problem. With the weather and acid rain, much of the stone and the identification has been eaten away, a serious and increasingly common problem.
The black citizens of Elgin, and the surrounding towns, have settled here by the following various means:
Some, like Benjamin Downs, Sr., was an escapee. Benjamin escaped from the "Ireland Plantation" near Baltimore, to Canada, then from Oil City, PA to Elgin, IL. Many came here this way. Charles Harding, Sr. and Silas Robinson probably came with Benjamin Downs (and his wife Am Newsome) and remained lifelong friends.
The Brown twins, Rigdom "Rig" Washington Brown and Wright "Trig" Washington Brown, were found (by a Union soldier named Dan Managin of the 52nd Illinois Volunteer Regiment) near Kingston, South Carolina near the "Gaskins Plantation". The Brown family was divided among the Gaskin heirs when the Brown's master died. The boys huddled in a swamp, terrified by stories of the Yankee monsters, until they were discovered in the wagon with the remaining Gaskin fortune. The boys were quickly adopted for "errand purposes" by two regimental commanders, Captains Wilbern (Rigdom Brown) and Wesley Acker (Wright Brown). They were brought to the Elgin area, sent to school, and eventually finding employment, became upstanding citizens of the community. Wright moved to Chicago. Many others came to Elgin after completing service with the Army.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
A few came by way of the "underground railroad". "Mother" Mary Norcross, born March 15, 1844 in Tennessee, made her way to Kane County and settled in Batavia in 1856. At her death, she was 92 years old.
Some blacks were natural born Illinois citizens like Mrs. Jessie Jenkins Briggs, the daughter of Maria Fortner. She was born in Cairo, Illinois, on September 5, 1864. The date may be incorrect as I suspect that she was born on the "contraband train while in Cairo during 1862.
THE CONTRABAND TRAIN
When the Union Army was engaged in military activities around Corinth, Mississippi, Captain B. Thomas, the Chaplain of the 52nd Illinois Volunteer Regiment, noticed that many freed slaves were being held in deplorable conditions in a large corral. He wrote to his friend A.J. Joslyn, the Editor of the Elgin Weekly Gazette in October of 1862, about the situation and asked if a plan could be initiated to bring the "contrabands" to Elgin as welcomed additions to the labor force. Editor Joslyn's rosy reports of the forthcoming welcome of the "contrabands" met heavy opposition at home. His own brother was the focal point. The idea of cheap labor upset unionists and the ever present Irish.
The "contraband train" left Camp Montgomery, Corinth, Mississippi in September 1862, expecting to arrive in Cairo, Illinois in spite of the state law that specifically forbade the transporting of contrabands into the state. The justification used was "authority from the Army". Indeed, Chaplain Thomas was saved from assault many times by his association as an officer in the Army and the threat of military retribution!
The contrabands arrived in Elgin on October 22, 1862, and were boarded in the old Kimball House. There were 125 women and children and only a few men as the others were still working for the Army and would arrive after the war. Ann Bosley, Maria Fortner and Margaret Hyde were among this group. Millie Oates, her son James, and Mary Ellen Newsome Wheeler also arrived on the train.
Following are transcripts of several letters between Chaplain Thomas and J.A. Joslyn on the subject of the "Contraband Train".
From the Elgin Weekly Gazette, Wednesday, October 8, 1862. A.J. Joslyn, Editor:
"CONTRABANDS. Just after our last issue we received the letter we publish below from Chaplain Thomas. We had it put in type at once and distributed in slips from this office. It created a profound sensation: it was a new phase of the war brought home to our very doors. As soon however, as the loyal people of Elgin and vicinity came to comprehend the facts in the case, they said, "let them come. We will take care of them: anything to destroy the power of the enemy."
"A meeting was held at the brick church on Sunday P.M., and a committee appointed to take charge of the refugees, if any should arrive, and see to their well-being placed in proper families, where they will be well cared for."
"The demand for laborers is so great in the south part of the state, that we shall not be likely to receive any until their wants are supplied. From the applications made to us since the receipt of the letter, we doubt not one or two hundred of them would find places at once in this vicinity. If men were with them in good proportion we could hardly have too many of them, but these are kept to work, and we trust ere long to fight for "Uncle Sam". The question of these people coming north is not an open one. It is a military necessity, and we have nothing to say about the desirableness of thus increasing our population. It is a patriotic and Christian duty to receive the friendless strangers and do the best we can for them. This we shall endeavor to do. Hence have forwarded to Mr. Thomas a letter, a copy of which will be found below."
"What shall be done? Letter from Chaplain Thomas. Camp Montgomery, Miss. Sept. 1862:"
" 'Dear Bro. Joslyn: --I expect to be at Cairo with a train load of contrabands next week, will leave here with them on Thursday or Friday. How many do you think can find a home at or near Elgin? Shall I bring a car-load of these poor creatures, who have just had the fetters taken from their limbs, to your place with any assurance that they can have food and clothing? Many of them are active women and children. Women who are good cooks, boys who can cut wood, and fee, and do much work. Will you tell me what I may expect from the patriotic men and women of Elgin. Now, the time to prove our faith by our works has come in regard to the negro. The government now feeding no less than six thousand in this command, and still they come by hundreds. Have you need of hands on the farm? Have you need of house servants? They can be had, and rebel farms will not yield much next year. We can take all the muscle force out of the Rebel Army in a few months if we are active. The women and children of the south are supported by the negroes while the husbands and fathers are in the Rebel Army. We can force these men home to save their families from starvation if we will?
The country had demanded a more vigorous prosecution of the war. Their wishes are granted, will they abide the result?
We are told that we dare not bring these persons north. I do not believe that the north will object to have rebel cattle or horses or mules or negroes or any other elements of power they have. We take their corn, horses, mules, fences, fruit, vegetables, sheep, hogs, negroes, and often burn their houses.
Who will complain? None but sympathizers with treason! I will, by order from the General, bring these to Ill., if I die in the attempt. Please write me and give me some advice at Cairo in regard to the probable number that will be acceptable to that vicinity and please have the friends furnish some eatables for them until they can find homes and some place to shelter them. I will telegraph to you the day we leave Cairo so every thing can be ready. I beg your aid in this work. A few men here are nearly crushed by their labors in behalf of the poor creatures. Some of them are really smart. I had almost said bright but I feared you would find them dark when they came, some of them are white, but more yellow and most black. let me hear from you and believe me.
B. Thomas, Elgin, Oct. 6th, 1862"'
"'Rev. B. Thomas: ---
Your letter announcing your intention to bring a train load of refugees to this state, has been received. You may be assured that Illinois will shrink from no duty which patriotism imposes. She has sent one hundred and fifty thousand of her noblest sons to uphold the authority of the government. And she will, if necessary, receive and provide for one hundred fifty thousand of these helpless captives of war.
The citizens of Elgin met yesterday and appointed a committee as follows: AJ. Joslyn, S.J. Kimball, AJ. Waldron, Lansing Morgan and Orlando Davidson."'
From the Elgin Weekly Gazette, Wednesday, October 22, 1862. Volume 8, No. 22:
"ARRIVAL. EXCITEMENT IN ELGIN. One Hundred and Twenty live Contrabands in Town.
Generosity of the people. MALICE OF THE SNEAKS. They Wake up the Wrong Passenger."
"Last Wednesday as soon as our paper was made up, we started for Alton to attend some anniversaries which detained us nearly a week. Soon after we left our office a dispatch came from Chaplain Thomas saying that two car loads of contrabands would arrive on the next train. About an hour later the train and the fugitives came. The friends had barely time to arrive at the depot to meet them."
"But the kindness and generosity of the people of this city can hardly be overdrawn. In a very little time the Kimball House was engaged, and its large dining room fitted up in a comfortable manner, and provisions enough brought in the keep the whole party for three days."
"The next morning they were placed in different families according to the wants of or benevolence of each. Many of them are now in families temporarily, where their services are not needed, and these wishing to take them for the winter or the war will have the opportunity. The great majority of these poor, homeless, inoffensive creatures are children. Of the whole number two thirds are children under sixteen years of age. A number of women have two or three young children, and of course, can not be of much service to anyone else.--- Houses for this class have been provided, and provisions will have to be furnished to them for the present. The citizens generally, have treated these unfortunate victims of oppression with care and sympathy. Chaplain Thomas as, on Sunday evening, from his old pulpit, publicly expressed his thanks for the noble manner in which his call had been responded to."
"But of course in every town, for variety's sake, there must be some men different from the rest. So a few in Elgin very foolishly undertook to annoy Mr. Thomas for acting the part of a good samaritan, as well as that of an obedient officer."
"One man went before Justice Burritt and swore out a warrant against the Chaplain for bringing negroes into the state, but when a dozen loafers gathered around the depot, as he was starting out for Chicago, to see him arrested. He informed them that he was acting under military orders, and they molested him at their peril. They concluded that discretion was the better part of valor, and left the heroic Welchman to go on his way. It may be of some importance to the man who in swearing out the warrant, swore to what he did not know to be true, and might easily have found out not to be true, to be informed that Mr. Thomas did not bring these negroes into the state, but only from one portion of the state to another. He came to Corinth with a load of wounded soldiers, and placed them in the hospitals at Cairo, and from there was sent with these contrabands. It must be a satisfaction to able-bodied men who neither go into the Army nor contribute to its comfort, to annoy and persecute the noble man who, like Mr. Thomas, are laboring night and day, with their lives in their hands, to defend our government. But such men may be sure they will be execrated by an intelligent community, and an outraged soldiery."
"To reasonable men we might say, what harm can a few of these inoffensive women and children do in our midst? But to the spirit that dictates persecution for righteousness' sake, we have no concessions to make. We have given a cordial welcome to the oppressed of the old world, and we do not propose to allow them to say who else, we may or may not receive."
From The Elgin Weekly Gazette, March 18, 1863:
"THE CONTRABANDS. Some months since the Chaplain of the 52nd (Illinois Infantry Regiment), acting under orders, brought to this place two car loads of colored refugees from Alabama. They consisted almost entirely of women and children, the men being retained to work for the Army. They came just as winter set in, debilitated by exposure in the barracks at Cairo and other places. Many of them were sick with lung fever, of which a number soon died."
"They came in the midst of a great political excitement, when the milk of human kindness was dried up by partisan heat."
"They had not been here long when the small pox broke out among them, and was communicated to several families, where they had been distributed. This of course increased the prejudice against them."
"They have been here about six months --perhaps twenty of them have died. The rest are now comfortably situated, contented and happy."
"They have been treated with uniform kindness by all, and have conducted themselves with such propriety as to greatly disarm prejudice. They are quiet, peaceable and industrious. All of them are now supporting themselves, and so great is the demand for labor that twice the number could easily find employment. Scarecely a day passes, but we receive a call from some farmer desirous of taking one or more of them. Five hundred of them would be welcomed by the farmers of Kane County, if the laws would permit them to be brought here. The idea they will not work for wages is exploded in this community. Many have found out they will not work without wages, and some of them are about a cute at a bargain as a white Yankee. If there were more of them here, so as to make society among themselves, they would cheerfully take their places as servants in every department of industry, and the prejudice against their color would entirely disappear."
SELECTED FAMILY PROFILES
In Elgin and Kane County, many of the black families have intermarried over the last 130 years and have at least one Bosley, Harding, Newsome or Johnson as an ancestor. . .a delightful surprise for me, as I was able to make one connection after another among these large complex family trees.
Tracing the pasts of African-Americans is not easy but it can be done. I am only sorry that I was unable to get some young people involved, a problem not unique to African-Americans.
One problem that I expected but did not encounter was the fact that I am white.
There are several other older families which will not be included in this section due to space and lack of information: the Corbetts, Prides, Hydes, Harrises, Garretts, and a few others.
The Arthur Newsome Family. Arthur Newsome was born on May 26, 1826 in Bertie County, North Carolina and was a slave on the plantation of Ed Newsome. He escaped from the plantation with intentions of meeting up with the Union Army. Some accounts say that he escaped with Peter Newsome and Abraham Newsome. One Elgin newspaper claims that the three were brothers probably because they shared the same last name. Taking the name of their owners was a common practice of slaves but did not signify any relationship.
Peter and Abraham went on West but Arthur stayed and drove team for the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was with the Regiment through the Battle at Corinth, Mississippi of October 4, 1862 and followed "Old Price" from there along the Tallahasse River until Christmas of that year.
He arrived in Chicago in March of 1863. His wife, Minerva, Millie Oates, Margaret Hyde and Maria Fortner had arrived in Elgin, Illinois on October 1862 on the "Contraband Train".
Arthur arrived in Elgin soon after his Chicago stay and stayed here all his life assuming a leadership position among the "colored" community.
He was a Charter Member and Deacon of the Second Baptist Church when it was established in 1868. Interestingly, a nephew of Arthur Newsome returned to the old plantation in Bertie County, North Carolina, purchasing a portion to become a part owner.
Besides Minerva, he was married to Rhoda Smith and Maria Fortner but is buried next to Minerva Rutland. He also supported Polly Rutland, his wife's mother.
The markers, made from limestone, in Bluff City Cemetery are so worn as to be unrecognizable and only a detailed map of the plot made their location known.
A park at the comer of Kimball Street and Dundee Avenue, the site of the old Second Baptist Church, is named in his honor.
The Abraham Newsome Family. Abraham Newsome was born in 1833 on the Ed Newsome Plantation near Raleigh, North Carolina. He arrived in Elgin on about 1862 after he left Raleigh and made his way to Oil City, Pennsylvania. He spent many years as a church and school janitor.
He was responsible for starting a Sabbath School Class for young "colored" men. From there he determined that there were sufficient "colored" Methodists to sustain a church. He was able to organize an African Methodist Episcopal Church in the council chambers of the City Hall on Grove Avenue, Elgin. He helped, with others, to build an A.M.E. Church and was active in it until his death on July 29, 1912. He had a brother who still resided at Cherokee, Alabama. Abe died from an injury sustained from a fall and was buried in Bluff City Cemetery, Elgin. He was 75 years, 5 months and 17 days old.
The Peter Newsome Family. Peter Newsome was also born on the Ed Newsome Plantation in 1827. He spent time driving wagons for the Union Army and later drove an express wagon in Elgin. He and his wife Sarah had 13 children, seven of which were still living at his death. He was active in the Second Baptist Church as a Deacon until his health failed and kept him at home. One of his sons, the Reverend Andrew W. Newsome contracted smallpox while preaching in Evanston, Illinois. It proved fatal. Peter's house and family were quarantined for two weeks and Andrew was buried at Bluff City Cemetery 10:00 at night in an unmarked grave.
A daughter, Amanda and her husband of a year Frank Parker, died from poisoned canned beef in May of 1885, while living in Clinton, Illinois.
Another son was last heard from in Cincinnati.
The Millie Oates Family. James Oates, born at Oates Hill, Alabama came to Elgin on the Contraband Train in October, 1862. His mother, Millie, was born at Cherokee, Alabama in 1827 and arrived in Elgin with her son, James. She was a member of the Second Baptist Church for 27 years. She died at her home on February 10, 1898 at 77 years of age.
Henry Oates married Priscilla Newsome, daughter of Arthur Newsome.
The Priscilla Oates Family. Priscilla Oats was born in Franklin County, Alabama, about 1842. She was about 80 years old but nobody, including herself, knew for sure. She died at home April 30, 1922. Her only daughter, Jessie Jenkins Briggs was born in Cairo, Illinois in October, 1862 when the contraband train stopped there on its way to Elgin, Illinois. There are no known descendants.
The Wheeler Family. Mrs. Mary Ellen Wheeler, a daughter of Arthur and Minerva Newsome was Elgin's last "former slave". She was born February 11, 1860 on a plantation near Cherokee, Alabama. She was first married to John Henry Clay Hall, a Civil War veteran, before her marriage to Lewis Wheeler. Lewis Wheeler is buried in Bluff City Cemetery but has no marker. One of Lewis' and Mary's children was Eugene L. (who was a WWI veteran) and who died in 1939 and is buried in the GAR Section of Bluff City Cemetery. He was in the Army but switched to the Navy on July 25, 1917, as a Ward Room Cook serving on the USS Essex, USS Great Lakes, USS Gauthie, USS Commodore and the USS Utah.
Eugene's wife, Viola Wheeler (daughter of Abe and Lucy Newsome) operated the Eugene Wheeler Trucking Company. She was a member of the Second Baptist Church for 74 years and was a prime creator of the yearly Emancipation Day Observation in Elgin.
Blanche Wheeler, wife of Lewis Wheeler, was from the Corbett family outlined elsewhere. She was once married to Harry Newsome, son of Peter and Lucy Newsome.
The Broadnax Family. Eventhough the Broadnax family came to Elgin in the 1940s and cannot be considered to be an "old" family, it has the unique distinction of being descended from three of the First Families. The Hardings, the Bosleys, and the Arthur Newsomes all contributed to the present generation as follows:
The Arthur Newsome family presented Ann Newsome, born September 7, 1838 in Cherokee, Alabama and who died in Elgin November 3, 1897 at 99 years of age. Her husband, Joshua and several of their children were buried in Potters' Field. Joshua received a short obituary in the paper: "Josh Bosley, colored, died at the poor house on Wednesday afternoon. His end was brought about by whiskey and exposure. At one time he lived in Elgin. He was industrious, provided a home for his family and then took to drink. He separated from his wife, lived the life of an outcast and died a pauper. So much for whiskey". Others of that generation distinguished themselves in the military. Edward Bosley was with Company E, Eighth Illinois Volunteer Infantry and served in Cuba. Susie Bosley born in1889, married James Blaine Harding, Sr. and are the progenitors of the current line, an industrious and civic minded branch of the family.
Charles Harding, Sr. was born September 4, 1847 as a slave in Boliver County, Mississippi. As an Elginite he was considered to be "a useful citizen". He was married twice, once to Maria Fortner and then to Emma Webster.
His last employment was as Elgin Poundmaster until injuries from a fall, which led to his death. He was also considered to be Elgin's "last slave" at his death on September 23, 1916. His granddaughter, Susie Harding was the mother of Mildred Harding Broadnax.
The Maria Fortner Family. Maria Fortner was also married to Arthur Newsome. She was born in Raleigh, North Carolina December 26, 1816 and came to Elgin on the Contraband Train October 22, 1862. Her daughters married into the other "Fist Families" in Elgin: the Wheelers, the Bosleys, and the Johnsons. She had another sister in the south who was 90 years old.
The Downs Family. Benjamin Downs was born in Baltimore, Maryland on the Ireland Plantation. He escaped to Canada at the age of 8 returning in 1878 to Oil City, Pennsylvania. In 1880 he came to Elgin and spent the rest of his life here.
The Claybrook Family. John W. Claybrook was born in Owensboro, Kentucky November 14, 1844. He was a member of the 107th United States Colored Regiment in the Civil War. He died at the old Soldiers Home in Danville, Illinois, on February 12, 1923. Mr. Claybrook was the only real fighting Civil War Veteran of all of the families. The family has died out and has no known direct descendants.
The Ephriam and Molly Brown Family. Ephriam Brown died in the poor house and his wife, Molly, nearly suffered the same fate. She was sold and bought back three times in Missouri as a child and took her last name from her first and third owner.
She was discovered destitute and starving in the "colored" section of town by Mrs. H.C. Gale, the general secretary of the Associated Charities. Money was raised to keep her in comfort and pipe tobacco in her final days. The fund remainder of $65.00 was used for her burial expenses at her death in March of 1923. She was 98 years old, being born in 1825.
The Andrews Family. Catherine and Samuel Andrews were notable for one single event. Their son, Louis Percy Andrews, was appointed the first African-American letter carrier in Elgin. He was a graduate of Berea College, Berea, Ohio, and was a World War I veteran having been wounded and gassed in France. He is buried in Elgin's Bluff City Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
The Nero and Mary Norcross Family. Mrs. Mary Norcross died at 92 years old, born in Tennessee March 15, 1844. She arrived in Elgin in 1856 and moved to Batavia, Illinois, that same year. Her husband, Nero, died in 1889 in Oswego, Illinois, from malaria. The last Norcross died in 1995.
Simon Preston Johnson. Simon Preston "Punk" Johnson was the grandson of John Andrew "Possum" Johnson, Sr., one of the pioneer members of Elgin, having arrived prior to 1870.
If ever a man led a star-crossed life it was Preston Johnson.
When he was eight years old, he and his friend Charles S. Harding, Jr. hitched a ride on a wagon. When jumping off, Charles hit his head and, within a few days, died from the injury.
When Preston was sixteen, the local Klu-Klux-Klan, acting on a rumor that a white girl had borne his child, tarred and feathered him. Eventually some members of the mob were brought to trial and convicted.
At thirty-six he was arrested for trying to cash a forged check for $5.00 and for being drunk and disorderly. He was put in the city court house jail to await trial. He allegedly became disorderly and was placed in a cell by himself where he was found later to have hung himself with his own belt.
He was quickly cremated and interred in Bluff City Cemetery. The court and coroner declared it to be a suicide but, to this day, some of the old timers claim that he was murdered to keep him quiet in the jail. He lies in an unmarked grave. Cemetery records state "ashes only".
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Reproduced by permission from the author, Raleigh Sutton.
Acknowledgement: A big thank you to ISGS members Howard Manthei and Eileen Lennon for scanning and transcribing this ISGS Quarterly article.
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