From Slave to State Legislator
John W. E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Southern Illinois University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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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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Introduction: “A Representative of Its Colored Citizens”
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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...
1. “Let Us Come Out Like Men”: The Historic Election of 1876
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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...
2. “An Able, Attentive, and Sensible Representative” : The First Term and a Failed Reelection Bid
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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...
3. “Justly Entitled to Representation” : The Long Road Back to the Legislature
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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...
4. “Advising Moderation in All Things” : The 1883 Legislative Session and Colored Convention
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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...
5. “We Are Here as Citizens” : Reelection, the Civil Rights Bill, and Another Colored Convention
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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...
6. “By No Means an Unimportant Position” : Election to the Office of South Town Clerk in 1887
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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...
7. “You Ought Not to Insult the Colored People!” : Final Bids for Office
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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...
8. “Forget Personal Grievances” : Uniting the Community as Elder Statesman
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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...
Conclusion: “Leader of the Colored Race Is Dead”
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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...
Appendix A: Illinois’ Leading African American Politicians, 1870–99
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Appendix B: Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885
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Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 20 B/w halftones, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2012