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From Slave to State Legislator

John W. E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker

David A. Joens

Publication Year: 2012

As the first African American elected to the Illinois general assembly, John W. E. Thomas was the recognized leader of the state’s African American community for nearly twenty years and laid the groundwork for the success of future black leaders in Chicago politics. Despite his key role in the passage of Illinois’ first civil rights act and his commitment to improving his community against steep personal and political barriers, Thomas’s life and career have been long forgotten by historians and the public alike. This fascinating full-length biography—the first to address the full influence of Thomas or any black politician from Illinois during the Reconstruction Era—is also a pioneering effort to explain the dynamics of African American politics and divisions within the black community in post–Civil War Chicago.

In From Slave to State Legislator, David A. Joens traces Thomas’s trajectory from a slave owned by a doctor’s family in Alabama to a prominent attorney believed to be the wealthiest African American man in Chicago at the time of his death in 1899. Providing one of the few comprehensive looks at African Americans in Chicago during this period, Joens reveals how Thomas’s career represents both the opportunities available to African Americans in the postwar period and the limits still placed on them. When Thomas moved to Chicago in 1869, he started a grocery store, invested in real estate, and founded the first private school for African Americans before becoming involved in politics.

From Slave to State Legislator provides detailed coverage of Thomas’s three terms in the legislature during the 1870s and 1880s, his multiple failures to be nominated for reelection, and his loyalty to the Republican Party at great political cost, calling attention to the political differences within a black community often considered small and homogenous. Even after achieving his legislative legacy—the passage of the first state civil rights law—Thomas was plagued by patronage issues and an increasingly bitter split with the African American community frustrated with slow progress toward true equality. Drawing on newspapers and an array of government documents, Joens provides the most thorough review to date of the first civil rights legislation and the two controversial “colored conventions” chaired by Thomas.

Joens cements Thomas’s legacy as a committed and conscientious lawmaker amid political and personal struggles. In revealing the complicated rivalries and competing ambitions that shaped black northern politics during the Reconstruction Era, Joens shows the long-term impact of Thomas’s friendship with other burgeoning African American political stars and his work to get more black representatives elected. The volume is enhanced by short biographies of other key Chicago African American politicians of the era.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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Copyright, Dedication

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

No one can write a book such as this without the help and assistance of many people. Generous historians hear of such a project and kindly offer their expertise or, when contacted, give it freely. Certainly librarians and special collections curators...

Chronology: John William Edinburgh Thomas

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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: “A Representative of Its Colored Citizens”

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pp. 1-5

Tuesday, January 3, 1877, was a historic day in the Illinois General Assembly. At exactly 12:15 p.m., fifteen minutes after its scheduled start, the Thirtieth Session of the House of Representatives convened for the first time.1 This marked the first gathering...

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1. “Let Us Come Out Like Men”: The Historic Election of 1876

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pp. 6-24

John W. E. Thomas came to Chicago as a young man around 1869 and, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded African Americans in the North in the immediate post–Civil War era, he became financially successful and socially...

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2. “An Able, Attentive, and Sensible Representative” : The First Term and a Failed Reelection Bid

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pp. 25-50

As the first African American to serve in the Illinois General Assembly, Thomas knew that he would be judged by different standards than other incoming freshmen legislators. During his term, he quickly established himself as a loyal Republican...

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3. “Justly Entitled to Representation” : The Long Road Back to the Legislature

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pp. 51-73

The years 1878–1880 would be a time of both political gain and loss for Chicago’s African American community. While no African American would be elected to the state legislature or to a city or county office, an African American...

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4. “Advising Moderation in All Things” : The 1883 Legislative Session and Colored Convention

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pp. 74-95

Thomas had been away from Chicago for more than a year in Washington yet came back to make a stunning return to political leadership in Chicago’s African American community. The Republicans had a majority in both the House and the Senate...

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5. “We Are Here as Citizens” : Reelection, the Civil Rights Bill, and Another Colored Convention

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pp. 96-124

The differences over strategy and the limited number of electoral opportunities available divided Chicago’s African American leaders. The small African American community could not afford division if it hoped to make gains in the political...

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6. “By No Means an Unimportant Position” : Election to the Office of South Town Clerk in 1887

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pp. 125-146

In August 1885, the correspondent for the Cleveland Gazette wrote that the “Honorable J. W. E. Thomas will never again fill a position as representative of the colored people of this city.” The correspondent, a fierce Thomas opponent, wrote...

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7. “You Ought Not to Insult the Colored People!” : Final Bids for Office

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pp. 147-168

Politically, the year 1888 would be difficult for Chicago’s small African American community. The ward redistricting had split it politically and temporarily diluted its strength in Republican councils. Electorally, it would make no gains. A strong...

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8. “Forget Personal Grievances” : Uniting the Community as Elder Statesman

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pp. 169-193

Throughout his career, Thomas supported the Republican Party in the belief that it offered the best opportunity for African Americans to achieve political equality. Given the small numbers of African Americans in Chicago and...

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Conclusion: “Leader of the Colored Race Is Dead”

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pp. 194-201

After almost twenty years as the political leader of Chicago’s African Americans, Thomas in the mid-1890s sharply curtailed his role and ceded leadership to others. He became involved in issues that affected the community, but even...


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Appendix A: Illinois’ Leading African American Politicians, 1870–99

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pp. 205-209

Appendix B: Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885

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p. 211


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pp. 213-238


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pp. 239-246


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pp. 247-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780809330607
E-ISBN-10: 0809330601
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330584
Print-ISBN-10: 080933058X

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 20 B/w halftones, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 784953409
MUSE Marc Record: Download for From Slave to State Legislator

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Subject Headings

  • Legislators -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Illinois -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Illinois -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
  • Thomas, John W. E. (John William Edinburgh), 1847-1899.
  • African American legislators -- Illinois -- Biography.
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