The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers


A major document of African American participation in the struggles of the Depression, The Negro in Illinois was produced by a special division of the Illinois Writers' Project, one of President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration programs. The Federal Writers' Project helped to sustain "New Negro" artists during the 1930s and gave them a newfound social consciousness that is reflected in their writing.
Headed by Harlem Renaissance...

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The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers

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A major document of African American participation in the struggles of the Depression, The Negro in Illinois was produced by a special division of the Illinois Writers' Project, one of President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration programs. The Federal Writers' Project helped to sustain "New Negro" artists during the 1930s and gave them a newfound social consciousness that is reflected in their writing.
Headed by Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps and white proletarian writer Jack Conroy, The Negro in Illinois employed major black writers living in Chicago during the 1930s, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, Fenton Johnson, Frank Yerby, and Richard Durham. The authors chronicled the African American experience in Illinois from the beginnings of slavery to Lincoln's emancipation and the Great Migration, with individual chapters discussing various aspects of public and domestic life, recreation, politics, religion, literature, and performing arts. After the project was canceled in 1942, most of the writings went unpublished for more than half a century—until now.
Working closely with archivist Michael Flug to select and organize the book, editor Brian Dolinar compiled The Negro in Illinois from papers at the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Carter G. Woodson Library in Chicago. Dolinar provides an informative introduction and epilogue which explain the origins of the project and place it in the context of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Making available an invaluable perspective on African American life, this volume represents a publication of immense historical and literary importance.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An exciting act of scholarly recovery. The Negro in Illinois papers, at long last available, are an invaluable guide to the role of American writers in crafting one of the first composite narratives of African American life. This dynamic volume shows us history from below in the making and being made."—Bill V. Mullen, coeditor of Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans

"An able and rich retelling of the story of African-American migration, literature, and culture before World War II."—Book News Inc.

"This landmark study provides a unique window onto the work of the Illinois unit of the Federal Writers' Project. A commendable work of historical recovery."—Richard Courage, coauthor of The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950
"Chicago had a vibrant black community, perhaps equal to that of Harlem, which makes the Illinois volume both important and interesting.  Highly recommended."—Choice

"A significant accomplishment.  Not only does it bring to light a range of wonderful material on a variety of topics (the Underground Railroad, work, churches, professions, social life, and social uplift, literature, music, the theater, etc.), but the wonderful introduction and Dolinar's fine editing skills also make the book a significant contribution to scholarship."—The Annals of Iowa

"In bringing out the until now largely unknown The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers, African American literary and cultural studies scholar Brian Dolinar has done an invaluable service for those interested in Great Depression-period black culture.  This work should be on the shelf of all who are interested in the study of African American literature, politics, economics, and culture.  Dolinar's The Negro in Illinois is unquestionably indispensable."—Journal of Illinois History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252037696
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2013
  • Series: New Black Studies Series Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Dolinar teaches in the department of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the author of The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation.

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The Negro in Illinois

The WPA Papers



Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03769-6


First, the French

There are three drafts of this chapter. Two early versions are located in the Illinois Writers' Project papers housed at the Harsh Research Collection. The earliest version was written by Robert Lucas. A third draft, the one used here, was written by Arna Bontemps and found in the Bontemps papers at Syracuse University with minor editorial changes in Bontemps's handwriting, which have been incorporated by the editor. Background for this and the subsequent chapters on early Illinois history came from two notable essays. One is "A Sociological History of the Negro in Chicago," a 137-page unpublished thesis by L. D. Reddick, produced as one of the WPA studies supervised under Horace Cayton and Lloyd Warner. The other is an essay written by Fenton Johnson and dated January 1, 1941, which begins with the early French in Illinois, mentions its first black settler Du Sable, discusses slavery before and after emancipation, and ends with Johnson's reflecting on the modern presence of the Ku Klux Klan, which he predicted would "melt as the snow flakes before the scorching sun."

In the spring of 1719 Phillip Francois Renault, a banker of Paris, set out on the adventure of his life. Versed in mining, he assembled complete tools, equipment, ships and men to develop mining interests for the company of St. Phillipe, a subsidiary of the Western Company. Of course, mineral treasures had not yet been found in Upper Louisiana, the area in which this group had rights, but one gathers that Renault had seen visions of a vast wealth buried in the American wilderness.

Forty-five days later, his ships entered the palm-fringed harbor of Cap Haitien, and Renault undoubtedly had occasion to compliment himself on getting "away from it all." But business was business, and the erstwhile banker was not in Haiti to sniff the fragrance of the tropics. He had stopped to purchase slaves. This he did forthwith, 500 of them to supplement the 250 miners and workers he had brought out from Paris. From the Haitian capital Renault sailed to New Orleans and continued up the river. Arriving in the vicinity of St. Philippe (Illinois), he and his party found a few forts erected by the French following the explorations of La Salle and Marquette. Prairie du Rocher, Cahokia, and Kaskasia were the most prominent of these settlements.

Renault's men prospected in the region of St. Philippe until 1744, but little came of their efforts. Then, perhaps discouraged, perhaps hungering for the glitter of his native Paris, Renault suddenly decided to pull out. He disposed of his slaves to the inhabitants of the district and returned home. Renault's unsuccessful mining venture succeeded in establishing slavery in Illinois.

The small farmers who purchased his slaves used them for domestic and farm labor. These Negroes "were treated everywhere with much leniency and kindness ... and their children were taught the catechism." By 1778 half of Kaskasia's population of one thousand were Negro slaves. They were not at that time subject to the rigid enforcement of the Black Code as were the slaves in the southern districts of Louisiana. Hence in this country, where women were scarce, there was considerable intermarriage, the unions being sanctioned and solemnized by the Roman Catholic clergy of the community.

The scanty documentary records of colonial Illinois include the report of a crude census conducted in 1732. Negroes at that time numbered 69 men, 33 women, and 64 children, as compared with 159 white men, 39 women, and an uncertain number of children.

In 1750 a certain Monsieur Vivier, missionary to the Illinois Indians, described the region around Kaskasia in the following passage:

We have here whites, negroes, and Indians, to say nothing of the cross breeds.... There are five French villages and three villages of the natives within a space of twenty one leagues.... In the five French villages there are perhaps 1,100 whites, 300 blacks and some sixty red slaves or savages. The three Illinois towns do not contain more than 800 souls (native) all told.

There is a certain vagueness in these categories, for the French did not usually hold mulattoes in strict bondage, and they were often numbered with the white population. On the other hand, no distinction was made between Indian-white mixed bloods and Negro-white mulattoes.

Another census was taken in 1752. This one revealed the presence of 187 Negro men, 113 women, 83 boys, and 62 girls. The white population was estimated at 134 men and 112 women.

Thus the Negro population, as officially recognized in colonial Illinois, increased from 166 to 445 within two decades.

Le Code Noir of 1724, by which Negroes were governed in French territory, provided for the "administration of justice, police, discipline, and traffic in Negro slaves in the Province of Louisiana." These rules appear mild when compared with the black codes of some Southern slave states. The slave had certain "rights" as well as "duties." While it defined bondsmen as real property, the code insisted that they be baptized, that they be given religious instruction, and that they be allowed certain primary liberties on Sunday and feast days. Under its provision a slave might purchase his freedom as many did.

In 1763 the Mississippi River Valley, with a population of about 3,000 (900 of them Negroes), was taken over by the English. Many of the inhabitants, not wishing to become British subjects, left the Illinois Country, either selling their slaves or taking them along. Of the 1,600 people remaining, 600 were Negroes.

In those times the Indians used to say that the first "white" settler in Chicago was a Negro. They had in mind, of course, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, the man who built his home at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1779 and lived there for more than sixteen years. Du Sable, also known as Au Sable, Du Saible, De Sable, Sabre, and Le Grand Sabre, was born about 1750. No one knows just where. The tradition is that Du Sable was a Haitian Negro who visited New Orleans prior to his coming to Chicago, his intention being to establish a colony of free Negroes in the lake Region. It is possible that he had been educated in France. But another story is told by Milo M. Quaife in his book Checagou. He says,

The history of the Du Sable family can be traced to France in the early seventeenth century when the ancestral name was Dandonneau. After the migration of the Dandonneau family to Canada, the son of the emigrant was known as Dandonneau's Sieur du Sable. This was in keeping with the custom of the times of adding a second name to the ancestral name." (La Salle, the explorer, whose real name was Robert Cheveler, is a familiar example of this custom.)

Succeeding generations of the family were known as Dandonneau and Du Sable, which names became prominent in the aristocracy of New France. Following the settling of Detroit, and subsequent migrations of the family to that city, the family name can be traced through the custom of the times, of the wife signing her name beside that of her husband on the church baptismal records. This custom left it possible for the children to be known by the name employed by the mother Dandonneau and Du Sable.

For many generations the name of Du Sable was prominently associated throughout the Northwest Territory with Indian Traders.

Thus several factors serve as connecting links between Jean Baptiste De Saible and the ancient Du Sable family of French ancestry: the similarity of the name, his occupation, and his location in the Northwest Territory. His patronage may be accounted for by a custom of the times: Negro and Indian slavery. "At Mackinac, as at Detroit, the baptismal register contains frequent records of both Indian and Negro slaves, and there is no lack of evidence that white men frequently cohabited with them...." This account is substantiated by an existing document in which Point Du Sable referred to himself as a "free Negro."

The first reliable record of Du Sable at Chicago is dated 1779. At that time the English had taken over the great Northwest from the French, and the American Revolutionary War was being waged. In the no man's land of the Northwest the loyalty of almost everyone was under suspicion. In his official report of July 4, 1779, Colonel Arent de Peyster, British commandant at Michilimackinac, wrote: "Baptist Point de Saible, a handsome Negro, well educated and settled at Eschikagou but was much in the interest of the French." Remembering Du Sable's name and connections, his sympathy for the French is not inconceivable. De Peyster ordered Du Sable detained because of suspicion of "treasonable intercourse with the enemy," but he left the vicinity and was later apprehended near what is now Michigan City. The report of the arresting officer, Lieutenant Thomas Bennet, throws some light on Du Sable's personality and position in the community.

I had the Negro Baptiste Point de Saible brought prisoner from the River Du Chemin. Corporal Tascon who commanded the party very prudently prevented the Indians (English allies) from burning his home and doing him any injury. He secured his packs etc., which he had taken with him to Mackinac. The Negro, since his imprisonment, has in every way behaved in a manner becoming to a man of his station, and has many friends who give him a good character.

The charges of espionage against Du Sable were dropped and he was released. In fact, the British governor Patrick Sinclair, a man who was usually hard to please, was so impressed with Du Sable that he hired the former captive's services for the next three or four years. In the summer of 1780 the vicinity of the "Pinery," an establishment which Sinclair had developed on the St. Clair River just south of modern Port Huron, sent a delegation to Mackinac to complain of the manager. Sinclair complied with their request that Du Sable replace the incumbent, a Detroit Frenchman. Although Du Sable was in this location until 1784, his accounts with Detroit merchants, which have been preserved, show that he used Chicago as his "permanent" address. During the time he was not too busy to conduct his business and increase his land holdings. As early as 1780 he began developing a plot of eight hundred acres at Peoria, and in 1783 he satisfactorily proved his ownership to a federal agency.

In 1784 Du Sable returned to Chicago, and during the sixteen years he lived there his profits and influence increased. Hugh Howard, the agent of a Detroit merchant, journeyed to Chicago with several Canadian boatmen in the spring of 1790. The party stopped at Du Sable's place and on May 10 exchanged their canoe for a "pirogue." They also obtained 41 pounds of flour, 29 pounds of pork, and a supply of baked bread for which they traded 13 yards of valuable cotton cloth. Evidently Du Sable's establishment was of such size that it could supply these unexpected demands for goods.

In 1800 Du Sable's trading post consisted of a house forty feet by twenty two feet, a bake house, dairy, smoke house, poultry house, work shop, stable, barn, and horse mill. The presence of the mill indicates that he raised his own wheat, and the large number of tools suggests that he produced his own lumber. To care for his stock and help him in his business of trading, Du Sable must have had a large number of employees. He carried on a lively trade and the popular conception that his home was just a "cabin" is not borne out by the records.

Du Sable's wife was a Pottawatomie Indian named Catherine, and on October 27, 1788, their union, consummated years before, was legalized at Cahokia by a Catholic priest stationed there. Two years after her parents' formal marriage, their daughter Suzanne was married to Jean Baptiste Pelletier. They had a daughter, Eulalie, who was born at Chicago on October 8, 1796. Du Sable also had a son, Jean Baptiste Point, Jr.

Du Sable was a typical pioneer; he was a trader, cooper, husbandman, and miller not to mention a good many other occupations which the wilderness required. He is described as being "about six feet tall," of commanding appearance, "handsome," "venerable" in his old age, and "of very pleasant countenance." Some accounts say that he was "well educated," others that he could only "make his mark." The British greeted his arrival with a salute of cannons when he came to Mackinac in 1796, as the leader of a band of Indians in birch canoes. Jacques Clamorgan, an influential Spaniard of St. Louis, was his friend.

Du Sable was also a lover of art. In the inventory of 1800 two pictures were listed. Years earlier a list of the personal effects of Du Sable which appeared in the Day Book of James May of Detroit included twenty-three pictures. Some of the titles give an indication of his taste: Lady Strafford, Lady Fortesque, The King and the Rain, The Magician, Love and Desire (of The Struggle). This collection, modest though it may seem by modern museum standards, was unusual indeed in the primitive and almost isolated country in which Du Sable lived.

In May of 1800 Du Sable sold out to Jean La Lime of St. Joseph. John Kinzie and William Burnett witnessed the transaction, "and the bill of sale, written in French, was recorded in the Wayne County Building in Detroit." La Lime paid 6,000 livres, about $1,200 for the property. Why Du Sable sold his flourishing business and left Chicago is a mystery. Perhaps the region was becoming too "crowded"; perhaps he was seized with wanderlust. Perhaps disappointment was the cause, for Du Sable had recently failed to win election as chief of the surrounding Indian Tribes. Whatever the reason, Du Sable left his trading post on the shores of Lake Michigan, never to return.

Little is known of him after his departure.

In December 1800, Point Du Sable was a plaintiff in a case concerning some horses stolen by Indians and seen by him in the vicinity of Peoria. The case was brought to court in St. Clair County, Illinois, and the following March was transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The years from 1805 to 1814 he spent in and about St. Charles, Missouri, where his son lived. Records of real estate negotiations document this fact. In June 1813, in return for her promise to care for him and to bury him in the Catholic Cemetery at St. Charles, Point Du Sable transferred a house, lot and other property in St. Charles to Eulalie Barode, his grand-daughter, wife of Michael Derais. These requests were probably not carried out. It is uncertain whether filial neglect or unavoidable circumstances is the explanation. At any rate, Du Sable "applied for the benefit of the law relative to insolvents" on October 10, 1814. He died soon thereafter.



Three drafts of this chapter, as well as chapter fragments, are located at the Harsh Research Collection. The more recent version that appears below was written by Arna Bontemps and found at Syracuse University. The editor has incorporated minor corrections made in Bontemps's handwriting.

Early Illinois was anything but an asylum of liberty. In 1734 the laws of Louis XIV were enacted, regulating the traffic in slaves in the province of Louisiana—which included Illinois. A section in these regulations provided that if one parent was free, the child would follow the condition of servitude of the mother. It prohibited the sale of any slave where such sale would break up a family group. Slavery was legalized under English rule when General Gage took possession of the territory and allowed the French inhabitants the privilege of becoming English subjects. They were allowed to retain all the rights, including the holding of slaves, which they had held under their French king.

When George Rogers Clark came into the Northwest, the Virginia House of Burgesses charted the whole territory and enacted a law in October 1778, making it the county of Illinois. The residents were again allowed to keep their chattel, and slavery continued. Although the Ordinance of 1787 declared that "There shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in such territory otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," slavery in the Northwest persisted.

The perpetuation of slavery in the Illinois County was again assured in 1784 when Virginia, ceding the territory to the United States, stipulated that all the inhabitants who had embraced her citizenship should retain all their rights. Slavery hung on.

Soon, however, there came to the frontier a man whose destiny it was to consolidate the opposition to slavery and to lead this opposition effectively. His name was James Lemen, and he was born November 20, 1760 near Harper's Ferry, Virginia. It is a strange coincidence that the vicinity that saw the birth of James Lemen should one hundred years later be the scene of John Brown's historic adventure. From childhood Lemen had been a friend and protégé of Thomas Jefferson, who according to Willard C. MacNaul's The Relations of Thomas Jefferson and James Lemen in the Exclusion of Slavery from Illinois and the Northwest Territory with Related Documents, "consulted him not only on small matters but vital matters of state." The same source reveals that by his "eloquence, tact and logic," Lemen influenced many of his friends to free their slaves. So impressed was Jefferson by Lemen's attitude and capabilities that he persuaded the latter to act as his secret agent in Illinois. Lemen's task was to help in the fight to exclude slavery from the entire Northwest Territory. Lemen's diary records the details of this unusual commission.

Thomas Jefferson had me to visit him ... as he wanted me to go to the Illinois country ... to try to lead and direct the new settlers in the best way and also to oppose the introduction of slavery in that country at a later day, as I am known as an opponent of that evil, and he says he will give me some help. It is all because of his great kindness.... [I] have agreed to consider the case.

Excerpted from The Negro in Illinois by BRIAN DOLINAR. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     vii     

Editor's Introduction....................     ix     

Editor's Note....................     xlv     

1. First, the French....................     1     

2. Slavery....................     6     

3. Abolition....................     14     

4. The Underground Railroad....................     22     

5. Lincoln and the Negro....................     34     

6. John Brown's Friend....................     41     

7. Leave a Summer Land Behind....................     51     

8. Rising....................     61     

9. Churches....................     69     

10. Soldiers....................     78     

11. Business....................     98     

12. Work....................     104     

13. Iola....................     110     

14. The Migrants Keep Coming....................     119     

15. The Exodus Train....................     130     

16. Slave Market....................     144     

17. Professions....................     150     

18. Health....................     152     

19. Houses....................     156     

20. Social Life and Social Uplift....................     165     

21. Recreation and Sports....................     177     

22. Defender....................     183     

23. Politics....................     189     

24. What Is Africa to Me?....................     194     

25. And Churches....................     209     

26. Literature....................     217     

27. Music....................     223     

28. The Theater....................     231     

29. Rhythm....................     240     

Bibliography....................     245     

Editor's Afterword....................     253     

Editor's Notes....................     257     

Editor's Works Cited....................     275     

Index....................     279     

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