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A Profound Trauma

Southern Illinois, the Civil War, and civil rights

See Illinois (unpublished)


An excerpt from my unpublished guide to Illinois history and culture. A glance at a map of the U.S will reveal what history amply confirms, which is that the southern third of Illinois lies in the American South. Virtually everything about the region’s economy, politics, and (especially) its social life owes to this fact. That heritage shaped the lives of both white and black Southern Illinoisans.


Illinois was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1818, but that meant only that slavery was not officially endorsed, not that it did not exist. Slavery had a long pedigree in Illinois by then. The Native Americans who frequented Illinois took slaves as a consequence of war, indeed sometimes as a pretext for it. The Illinois French kept slaves too. The practice was confirmed in law both by the French and their English successors, even by the state of Virginia, which for a time enjoyed sovereignty over its far-flung western “county.” Not until adoption of the ordinance that governed Illinois as a federal territory (and later its own new state constitution) was slavery forbidden by law in Illinois, but the law was ambiguously worded and indifferently enforced. For years slaves were legal even if slavery was not, and even state government exploited that fact; the only “plantation” in old Illinois was the salt works on the Saline River, a state-regulated monopoly.


Southern birth was hardly a guarantee of pro-slavery views among the region’s whites. Many Southerners had come to Illinois because they could not compete with slave labor or because they had been frozen out of public life by the planter class. William Oliver met a couple of Vandalians, originally from Ireland, who had come to by way of the Carolinas. The male of the pair explained that he had left the South because there, “a man who had not a number of slaves and a large estate was despised by the planters, and was, in fact, almost deprived of society.”


But while they had their arguments against slavery, Egypt’s white people tended to be just as vehemently against abolitionism, whose agents they saw as meddling improvers. (Many people who would today be called liberals on the race issue favored colonization rather than emancipation as a solution to the slavery problem.) At the Lincoln-Douglas debate on slavery staged in 1858 in Jonesboro in Union County—the debate that attracted by far the smallest crowd of their seven encounters—Lincoln tip-toed around local opinion. He had throughout that campaign stressed the need for political equality for blacks in Illinois’s northern towns, citing the Declaration of Independence, but in southern towns he pointed up his belief that, in social terms, blacks and whites were not equal. The principles of Lincoln’s new Republican Party, Douglas charged with some justice, were jet-black in the north, “a decent mulatto” color in central Illinois, “and in lower Egypt they are almost white.”


Pockets of abolitionism existed elsewhere in the region, mostly in those parts of the state exposed to prevailing social winds from the north (Vandalia was one) or England (among the leaders of the anti-slavery faction were such transplanted Brits as Morris Birkbeck of Edwards County). Because southern Illinois stood just across the Mississippi from the slave state of Missouri, several  towns were stops on the Underground Railroad. Sympathizers hid runaway slaves in caves, barns, and basements throughout Alton and nearby towns such as Otterville and Jerseyville. But local legend suggests there were more “stops” on the Underground Railroad in southern Illinois than there were on the Illinois Central. For example, local tradition holds that the underground storage bins built beneath the sidewalks of downtown Cairo were “cells” used to secrete runaway slaves, and later to hold federal prisoners during the Civil War; neither is likely.


In 1823, pro-slavery residents engineered a referen­dum to decide whether to convene a convention to revise Illinois’s constitution to allow outright slavery. The voter overall was decisively against the idea, but while the state’s northern counties were in general against it, the southern ones were for it. (Although not even Egypt spoke with one voice on the matter; many agreed with Lincoln that slave labor cheapened free labor.)


A pro-slavery constitution was thus rejected, but the old constitution permitted conditions that verged on slavery. The prospect of a large free black population in Illinois left many whites uneasy for social or economic reasons. Thus did an ostensible free state repeatedly endorse cruel “black laws” aimed at controlling citizens of African American descent. Free black residents were not allowed to vote, sue, testify in courts, serve in the militia, or enjoy free use of their property, and were vulnerable to being harassed, even arrested on trumped-up charges of harboring runaways. As late as 1853 the state legislature forbade free black people from enter­ing the state; an effort in 1862 to enshrine this law in the state constitution nearly succeeded. The state’s “Black Code” was not finally repealed until very near the end of the Civil War.

To these insults was added injury. Some Illinois freemen were kidnapped and shipped south as slaves. Randall Parrish noted in 1905 that the kidnapping of free negroes and indentured servants had been a regular and profit­able business in Egypt. “No crime can be greater or more revolting than this,” he wrote, yet “southern Illinois afforded a safe retreat to these kidnapping outlaws” as late as 1851.


For decades, Illinois’s tolerant, even conniving official stand on slavery was glossed over by patriots anxious to protect Illinois’s reputation as the hearth of the Great Emancipator. In the absence of facts about the antebelleum years, speculation, often lurid, flourished. A smokehouse behind the Pierre Menard house in Randolph County—a structure found on the grounds of every country house of that pretension—was for years mistaken for a slave quarters.


The most enticing mysteries attached to Hickory Hill, widely known for decades as the “Old Slave House.” Only History or a bad screenwriter would place a building known as the Old Slave House just outside a town named Equality, but outside that Gallatin County town there stands a Southern Colonial-style house built in 1834 by John Cranshaw, an Englishman who  was rumored to have used it as a slave “jail.” Recent documentary evidence suggesting he kidnapped indentured servants and free blacks and sold them into slavery in nearby slave states was strong enough that in 2004, the National Park Service named the mansion as a "station" on the so-called Reverse Underground Railroad. 


Rumors of the house’s ugly past were not exactly discouraged by the last private owners of the property, who realized the appeal that such a sinister past would add to its value as a tourist site. They, along with historic preservationists and local tourism boosters, lobbied the State of Illinois to buy it for years, which finally happened in 2000. The decision revealed how much attitudes about Illinois’s past had changed since the 1960s. Back then, the state wanted no part of the house because it was associated with slavery; by 2000, the most convincing argument made for buying it was that the house was associated with slavery. (Among the legislative backers for acquisition is was the General Assembly’s Black Caucus.) The purchase was a welcome endorsement of a franker history-telling, but as of 2006 the State of Illinois still had not found the money to open the house to the public.

A Puritan's Puritan


That part of Illinois across the Mississippi from St. Louis—founded in part by slave-holding French, in a free state but on a river that connected it socially and economically to the Deep South—was destined to have complicated race relations. Among the leaders of the anti-slavery faction during the 1824 convention vote whether to amend the constitution to allow slavery was Edwardsville’s Gov. Edward Coles. A Virginian, Coles was himself a slave owner, but in Illinois he freed his slaves in 1819 in a ceremony on flatboats on the Ohio River, giving each man 160 acres of land to start a new life; his political enemies engineered his conviction on charges that he released the slaves illegally. His role in stopping the pro-slavery constitution earned him historian Robert Howard’s praise as “one of the two governors who did the most to influence the history of the state.”

Alton was a hotbed of early abolitionism. It was the home of Lyman Trumbull, the U.S. senator and friend of Lincoln who authored the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Alton was a junction of the Underground Railroad which linked escaped slaves from Missouri or points south to the string of Illinois towns—Jacksonville, Princeton, Ottowa and Quincy—known to shelter them on their ways north toward Canada. It was at the Old Rock House, home of Reverend T. B. Hurlbut, that the founding meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society of Illinois was held, in October of 1837.

It was in Alton too that newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837 while protecting his press from a pro-slavery mob. There are those who are happy to let the world assume that Lovejoy spoke for Alton in his detestation of slavery, overlooking the fact that it was Altonians who attacked and killed him in a shootout between the mob and Lovejoy’s friends. Both sides in the shootout were acquitted in a trial which may have offended justice but probably kept the civil peace.

The authors of  the 1973 paean to Egypt, Land Between the Rivers, list Lovejoy among southern Illinois’s heroes. If he is, it is a recent promotion. Pease called Lovejoy “a Puritan of the Puritans.” Lovejoy was as persistent and prickly an abolitionist as there was in Illinois in those days. Abolitionism was considered radical and dangerous by most southern Illinoisans who bothered to form an opinion; many of those Egyptians who denounced Lovejoy’s murder did so in support of his right to free speech, not his opinion on slavery. His murder drew hardly a peep of protest from southern Illinois newspapers, and Reverend Lovejoy was put to rest in the Alton Cemetery under a simple pine board and his grave was forgotten. 

The winners in history’s battles, it might be said, build the statues. Lovejoy enjoys a better press these days—proof that most Egyptians had by 1970 finally come around to the idea that slavery ought to be abolished. The Elijah Lovejoy Monument stands at the entrance to Alton City Cemetery; erected in 1897, the work stands more than 100 feet high and can be seen from most parts of town. It was refurbished in the 1960s and rededicated in 1997. A section of the printing press that Elijah Parish Lovejoy used was recovered in 1915 from the Mississippi River, where the mob had thrown it after killing Lovejoy. The recovered portion is on display at the offices of the Alton Telegraph newspaper.

Mostly Union sympathizers

The opinion is general that the Civil War was for Illinois a proud chapter. The North’s political and military campaigns were led by two of the state’s many adopted sons, Lincoln and Grant, its citizens provided more than a quarter of a million troops (almost all of them enlistees), and its factories were the source of much of the industrial might that eventually crushed the South.


Egypt played its part. Many of the river gun boats and support craft used against the Confederacy were built or refitted at Mound City on the Ohio River, on docks built originally to make boats for the Memphis-to-New Orleans cotton trade. There too were laid keels of the ironclad gunboats that were among the Civil War’s contributions to combat technology. Geographically, southern Illinois was a spear thrust into the western flank of the Confederacy and so was strategically important; Cairo was an especially important spot, being used to stage Union Army expeditions into Tennessee and Mississippi as well as incursions into the border states of Missouri and Kentucky.


However, most of the people of Egypt in 1860 were still Southern by culture and inclination, even if they were Northern by geography. That many Egyptians sympathized with the South is not doubted. Some joined the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society pledged to support the Confederacy, although most did more pledging than supporting. Until the quartering there of U.S. troops made it dangerous to express such sentiments, Cairo was thought to be in favor of secession. Even today the City of Carbondale, noting that by the Civil War the town had grown to include some 1,150 people, feels obliged to add, “most of whom were Union sympathizers.”


That some people sought to act on their Southern sympathies cannot be doubted either. Marion residents passed resolutions of support for the Confederacy in the early days of the war, and a company of Marion men marched south to join Confederate forces in Kentucky; locals even plotted to cut the Illinois Central Railroad—a vital means of moving men and materiel to the front—in nearby Jackson County. For a time martial law was imposed on Marion as a result.


Opposition to the war deepened as it dragged on. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 transformed what had been seen as a war for the Union—a cause patriotic Egyptians endorsed—into a war against slavery—a cause many Egyptians thought dubious, if not dangerous. The proclamation spurred so many desertions from one Williamson County regiment that it was dissolved; sympathetic locals helped the deserters to elude the federal agents sent to arrest them.


Most incidents of pro-Southern agitation occurred not in deepest southern Illinois but in the region’s northern counties, where populations of southerners mixed with northerners. Local histories of Olney note that while most citizens rallied around the Union, it was necessary to station troops in Olney to enforce the draft; Union soldiers home on leave wrecked the presses of the Olney Weekly Press, which was thought to be  sympathetic to the Confederate cause, or at least not sufficiently sympathetic to the Union one. Tension ran high between pro-Union citizens and Copperheads or “Peace Democrats“ in Charleston as well; in 1864 a trial of Union deserters there led to gunfire that killed nine before troops arrived from Mattoon to calm the situation. 


Considering the Southern background of so many of its people and its geographic proximity to slave states, the fact that some southern Illinoisans supported the South is less remarkable than the fact that so few did. Lincoln’s presence in the White House helped, as did the fact that slavery was one of the things many Egyptians liked least about the South. Also, the South had a proud tradition of soldiering. The ten southernmost counties of Illinois exceeded their quota of enlistees during the war by half—a fact that may be attributed as much to local boys’ enthusiasm for a good fight as for the Union cause.


One of Illinois’s wartime heroes was an Egyptian. John A. Logan—born in Murphysboro, schooled near Belleville—was Illinois’s most famed general after U.S. Grant. He made a dashing commander, and his public backing of the Northern cause is thought to have persuaded many fellow Egyptians to rally behind the Union. By war’s end Logan had become a fervent, even theatrical patriot, but Logan came late to that enthusiasm; his hesitation as war approached in 1860 betrayed the ambivalence with which many in his home region viewed the war.


Logan today is widely honored as the father of Memorial Day. The story goes like this: In April of 1866, Carbondale citizens brought flowers to decorate the graves of the Civil War soldiers buried in that town’s Woodlawn Cemetery. General Logan was among the dignitaries who took part in what was one of the first organized observances of what we now call Memorial Day. (One of the first; Waterloo, New York, for example, was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.) But while Logan did not invent the observance, he was instrumental in making it national. Logan later became the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest and most influential organization of Civil War veterans; his 1868 order to all GAR posts to observe May 30 as a day of remembrance of those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion” was the impetus to making it a national holiday.


The invasion of southern Illinois by Confederate troops, feared by some in the opening days of the Civil War, never happened. Yet Baker Brownell echoed the judgment of four generations of historians when he wrote that to southern Illinois the war was what Brownell called “a profound trauma, a wound from which there was little recovery.” No military battles were fought on Illinois soil, but a decisive social battle was. What Richard Jensen calls the war for modernity was fought in 1860–65, and Egypt lost.


Illinois, as happens so often, mirrored the larger national conflict between the forces of progressivism, industrialization, and urbanization (marshaled in Illinois’s northern reaches) against the agrarianism and primitivism embodied in its southern third. Before the war, for example, Illinois commerce had moved north and south. Trade began to shift away from the rivers in the 1850s, as Chicago sent out web of rails, but that shift that had got new impetus in 1860s, when the Civil War threw up a levee against commerce with the South. Illinois became irrevocably oriented to the industrial east rather than the agricultural south. Afterward Egypt was related to a curiosity, an afterthought, sometimes an embarrassment, never again to be a decisive force in what Illinois was or wanted to be.

Invisible lines


The 20th century was, in racial terms, slow to dawn in southern Illinois. Actress Ruby Berkley Goodwin’s childhood experience in Du Quoin, which she summarized in the title of her 1953 memoir, "It's Good to Be Black, was not shared by all of southern Illinois’s people of color. Black residents were related to trackside ghettos in Du Quoin, Centralia, Carbondale, and other towns. African Americans were not tol;erated at all in whole swathes of rural southeast Illinois away from the river towns, factory towns, and coal towns to which blacks gravitated (or were relegated). Events such as the Ku Klux Klan three-day “Klantauqua,” staged under the big tent in towns like McLeansboro in the 1920s, were reported as if it was a county fair or church bazaar; H. Allen Smith recalls that he didn’t recall ever seeing a black person in the McLeansboro of his youth in the 1930s. 


Growing up in Union County in the 1930s and 1940s, Edgar Allen Imhoff was taught by an uncle that black kids they saw playing near some shacks near the Big Muddy River were that color because they were dirty; it was not until he was an adult that Imhoff noticed that the editors of his high school annual had lumped all the portraits of his African American classmates together on the last page.


Adoption of the 13th Amendment secured victory over slavery for the abolitionists, but for Illinois’s African American citizens, emancipation meant little. Towns across the region practiced southern-style segregation for decades after the Civil War. According to one source, Effingham for years would not allow black railroad workers to stay in town after dark, forcing the workers to haul themselves by hand car to Edgewood, 20 miles to the south, which was the closest town in which they were allowed to stay. Carterville, in Williamson County, in the 1930s would not even allow a black person to enter the town, and nearby Herrin was one of many in the area who forbade them to linger overnight. Joseph P. Lyford recounted how a Presbyterian minister, recently transplanted to 1950s Vandalia from Cincinnati, chastised the town for its hypocrisy in identifying itself with the Land of Lincoln while banning black people from buying property or renting a home or even a hotel room there.


Judged by the standards of the post-civil rights U.S., Egypt’s race relations were deplorable—at least, they usually are deplored by today’s commentators—but those who lived them draw a more complex picture. Ruby Goodwin's family shared Du Quoin’s west side with Italians, Poles, and Germans. “The town was divided by invisible but well-defined lines,” she recalled, but not all of those lines were intended to constrain black people. Indeed, Goodwin found, “In our town there were few penalties that could traced directly to color.” And while Goodwin dreaded the arrival of traveling theater companies who brought Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Du Quoin—for days afterward white children would taunt her as “Topsy”—“I cannot remember a single time when a foreign-born youngster called me this name. They too knew the ordeal of walking with head high as some child stood securely in his yard and yelled Heine, or Wop, or Kike.” 


Mean burgs

Most of the black citizens of today’s Illinois live in its larger cities, of which the region has few—one reason why the proportion of African Americans in the region’s overall populations remains well below the Illinois average. For decades, virtually all of the African-American population of Metro East was concentrated in the other St. Louis—East St. Louis and adjacent industrial towns like Brooklyn.


Brooklyn was founded by whites but  came to be occupied by African-American workers drawn to nearby steel mills prior to World War I; for a long time Brooklyn was the largest exclusively African-American community in Illinois, and by some reckoning was the oldest in the whole country. Brooklyn was mainly a railroad yard, and it was typical of African-American settlements, being on land whites regarded as otherwise useless.


Since World War I East St. Louis is not only the largest city in Metro East, or its least successful one, but its blackest one. For most of the 20th century its population mix was much like that of the other factory towns on the Bottom—some African-Americans (in 1910 one-tenth of the population of 59,000 was black), native whites and foreign immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Greece, Scotland, Yugoslavia, Germany, Ireland, Armenia. By 1917 the number of black residents was over 10,000.

The World War I era brought racial tensions to a boil. Anti-black feeling was hardly unique to the southern parts of the state. Lynchings happened in Cairo in 1909, true, but they were only two of a dozen such murders in Illinois between 1900 and 1915, and four days of race riots in 1919 that left 38 dead and more than 500 injured erupted in Chicago, a place that then, as now, tends to dismiss southern Illinois as uncivilized. But it is southern Illinois that bears the shame of hosting what were, in terms of the number of dead, the worst race riots in Illinois history—in the summer of 1917, in East St. Louis.


Strict separation for a time had long kept social fiction in East St. Louis to a minimum. African Americans had been imported as scab labor after the mainly European factory hands had organized themselves into unions. Later, local businesses turned to black labor again after the flow of immigrant workers dried up after 1910 and bans on child labor further shrank the supply of cheap labor. Antagonism grew out of much-tilled ground–anxiety about lost jobs among white workers, hyped-up fears of armed insurrection by African Americans, fears that the Republican Party was “colonizing” the city with African-Americans in order to garner more votes. The fear of a Republican conspiracy to make East St. Louis a black town, while exaggerated, was not wholly fantasy; between 1900 and 1910 the population of East St. Louis had doubled, a shift that only accelerated during the war years when black workers were recruited for the booming war plants, a social change that was too sweeping and happened too fast for the city’s white citizens.

East St. Louis whites were mostly Southerners just off the farm or newly arrived Europeans with no experience of other races. Their animosity toward African-Americans was common enough that local factory owners could rely on it as a management tool. Among the testimony gathered in the aftermath of the 1917 race riots was that the owner of the local aluminum plant, who explained that he filled his shop with one-third white Americans, one-third black Americans, and one-third foreigners, knowing that each group hated the other so heartily that the three factions would never unite in a strike against the company.

Sporadic beatings and intimidation of African-Americans the city in the spring of 1917 were followed in June by full-scale mob violence in which rioters burned sixteen acres of the city, destroying 250 buildings and other property valued at $1,400,000. The mobs killed thirty-nine black people (some of whom were burned alive in their houses) and injured hundreds more.

It was Illinois’s deadliest racial violence. And one of the casualties was any hope that Southern migrants might have entertained about the North being a haven. Black Illinoisans regarded the East St. Louis riot and its aftermath with understandable bitterness. A coroner’s jury, a military court, and a citizens committee convened by the  East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce all investigated the events of that summer. The town’s elite blamed local officials and the police; just about everyone else blamed the large influx of black people from the South. A local grand jury in­dicted 105 people for their parts in the riot, thirteen of them black men accused of murdering two city detectives. Of these, ten were found guilty of lesser charges; the rest went free, in part because witnesses were reluctant to testify. In an editorial, the Chicago Defender pointed out that the riots took place “not in Georgia, Texas nor any other state below the Mason and Dixon line, but in Illinois.” The paper’s outrage was appropriate but its geography was misinformed. The Defender might not have been so surprised if the editors realized that East St. Louis in fact lies well below the Mason-Dixon Line.

If East St. Louis is a textbook example of the Northern-style race riot, Cairo offers a case of racial violence, Southern-style. Nothing more Southern about Illinois’s southernmost city than its attitudes about race. The Civil War left it with a sizable population of black refugees from nearby slave states. (The authors of Land Between the Rivers. describe it nicely as the Ellis Island of Illinois.) The Federal Writers Project’s Guide to Illinois in 1939 reported without comment the segregated social system that pertained over the next couple of generations. “Negroes compose 34 per cent of Cairo’s population. They have a moving picture house, their own churches, restaurants, and small places of business. As in southern towns, separate schools are maintained for Negro children.” Enforcement of the system was by the usual means: lynchings at the turn of the century, a race riot in 1937, a firebombing and cross-burning in 1952.

The national civil rights revolution in the 1960s promised to change all that but did not. In time the U.S. Civil Rights Commis­sion would criticize the city for everything from too-white hiring policies, segregated public housing, and white flight aggravated by a school board that refused to accept federal funds with desegregation strings attached.  In 1962 local officials chose to close the city’s swimming pool rather than integrate it; in 1964 black residents were beaten with clubs and chains when a group of them tried to inte­grate a roller-skating rink. Militant black protests spurred some whites to organize as the United Concerned Citizens’ Association; armed conflict between the two flared and dimmed for years.

In 1969 the death of a nine­teen-year-old black soldier in police custody led to riots, arson, and sniper fire that some reporters likened to firefights in faraway Vietnam. There followed a black boycott of white businesses that in time wrecked the Cairo economy, and fires that wrecked the physical buildings that once housed it. The conflict died down but was never really solved, and the town continues to labor under its reputation as what Joel Garreau called  “one of the meanest burgs of its size outside Oklahoma.”

The result of these upsets was mass flight. In 1930, Cairo was home to more than 14,000 people; by 2018 only about 2,200 people lived there. The town is being washed away like an eroding riverbank, and there are not many left who will be sorry to see it go. 


Southern hospitality


Given its freighted racial past, it is ironic that southern Illinois’s flagship university, indeed its flagship institution of any kind, is among the nation’s more welcoming to African Americans. According to its official Web page, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale ranks fourth in the nation among traditionally white schools in the number of black students earning degrees. In 2000 an African American was hired as president of SIUC, the first of his race to head any of Illinois’s major public universities.


That record was not easily achieved. SIUC could not have grown as it has since World War II had it recruited solely from its own back yard. Morris looked outside the region for students, and found them in Chicago. One story has SIUC president Delyte W. Morris cutting a deal with legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, promising to deliver “Southern hospitality" to African American students from Chicago in return for Daley’s help obtaining General Assembly support for the school’s expansion. (More than 30 percent of SIUC’s in-state new freshmen still come from Cook County.) The story has never been confirmed but it endures because it is consistent with the reputations of each man.


Applying the phrase “Southern hospitality” to the treatment received by African Americans in those days verges on sarcasm. Morris was the very model of a modern integrationist, insisting, for example, that dorm rooms be assigned regardless of color, and leading the fight to eliminate off-campus segregation. Roland Burris was an SIUC student who went on to become the first African American to win statewide office in Illinois, has recalled that when he arrived in campus in 1950 there were only three restaurants in Carbondale that would serve black people, black people were still ordered to sit in the balcony in local movie houses, and no Carbondale hotel or motel accepted African American guests. “Just like Mississippi," said a former student and then-university trustee in 1998.


The school had courted black students during its postwar expansion, and the insults to which they were subjected off-campus was a impediment to further recruiting. President Morris had no official authority over the town’s behavior, but as Carbondale’s biggest employer the university had considerable unofficial clout—something that Morris must have reminded local merchants of when he undertook a successful behind-the-scenes effort to integrate Carbondale public accommodations. It is a measure of Morris’s stature among black people of that generation that anti-establishment comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, who attended classes there in the 1950s, became a friend. 


The beacon for ambitious African Americans that was SIU has dimmed in recent years, however. Funding and overall enrollment has plummeted, with black enrollment dropping even faster, and only about a third of black undergrads have earned degrees within six years in recent years.




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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