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  • A Case Study of Racial Exclusion and Incarceration in the Midwest:Illinois before the Carceral State
  • Robert Scott (bio)


Outrage over the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown near St. Louis and Laquan McDonald in Chicago triggered waves of protest against police mistreatment of African Americans. Demonstrations under the banner of "Black Lives Matter" have been fueled by video footage of police killings and the exoneration of police in the rare instances in which such killings have been brought to trial. These two flashpoints of the current movement—Ferguson, Missouri, and a peripheral neighborhood of Chicago near Cicero, Illinois—are not arbitrary. They are part of a struggle over the station of black citizens in the Midwest that goes back to the colonial settlement of the region and the struggle over slavery. Tracing the predecessor species of the carceral state in the Midwest may help us understand the present dilemma in the United States.

Critical prison studies have shown how today's racialized mass incarceration of black people grew out of the 1960s and 1970s, a sort of political revanchism that developed in response to the Civil Rights Era.1 Others have written about how crime provided cover for racial discrimination and the denial of rights much earlier, extending the timeline back to slavery.2 In the pages that follow, I investigate how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century prisons were germane to the evolving racial order and social control in the Midwest. Past scholarship has illuminated the racist roots of prisons that were formerly slave [End Page 31] plantations in the South (e.g., Angola and Parchman) that still operate in today's vast penal archipelago.3 But what about nonslave states and the carceral systems they developed during the same period? How was racial control formative of the early landscape of an ostensibly antislavery state such as Illinois? How do the original penitentiaries located near St. Louis and Chicago fit into the history of race and policing in America's breadbasket?

In tracing the origins of the Illinois penitentiary system, this paper contributes to the genealogy of American prisons.4 The relevance of this study derives from the fact that the United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other nation, and the majority of prisoners are African American.5 Most U.S. prisoners are incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.6 This raises a historical question: How did states that fundamentally disagreed on slavery in the nineteenth century converge upon the mass incarceration of African Americans in the twentieth century? This essay looks for clues in the proto-carceral state. Illinois developed its first prisons during the nineteenth century; the young state sided with the Union in the Civil War (the "Land of Lincoln") but simultaneously set about establishing a racially segregated pattern of settlement throughout the state. This apparent contradiction would parallel subsequent contradictory developments such as the rise of "color-blind racism" and the legal discrimination against felons.7 This paper looks at the ways in which earlier paradigms of racial segregation interacted with the developing carceral system before the emergence of racial mass incarceration in the late twentieth century. My hope is that an understanding of the currents of history that are traced in this study of Illinois may inform the struggles for justice that continue to this day.

Before the Civil War: The Bracketing of Black Life and of Punitive State Violence

Native Americans were forcibly removed and slavery was banned from Illinois before it was admitted as a state in 1818.8 Although it was admitted as a nonslave state, much of its population lived in the southern part of the state, which was culturally connected to the South, particularly the southern tip of Illinois, which was sandwiched between the slave states of Missouri and Kentucky. Though slavery was outlawed, it persisted in this far southern end of the state, nicknamed "Little Egypt." Cotton and tobacco were raised by slaves in the southernmost counties during the first decades after the state was established. Free African descendants in Illinois lived in the limbo status of noncitizenship while white Illinois residents generally did all they could to minimize their presence...


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