Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John Jones and the Illinois Black Laws

Contributed by Clarke House Museum intern Julia Mikula.

 As we come to the end of Black History Month, we note the state of life for African Americans during the period that the Clarke family lived in Chicago. From the 1830s until the end of the Civil War, Illinois was both a refuge and center of discrimination for blacks. While freedom could be gained in Illinois, its full enjoyment was not guaranteed. The 1850s, especially, were a tumultuous time for people of color in Chicago, which soon became a center of civil rights debate.
Under the Illinois Black Laws, any black resident without a certificate could be arrested as a runaway slave.

 At the dawn of its statehood, Illinois adopted legislation called the Black Laws, also known as the Black Codes. The Black Laws, passed in 1819 and in effect until 1865, included a number of restrictions on black residents. Among the restrictions was the requirement that all black residents carry a certificate of freedom (commonly referred to as "free papers") issued by the government and register personal information with the court clerk; any black resident without a certificate could be arrested as a runaway slave.1
Certificate of Freedom for John  Jones, 1844. This document identifies him as a resident of Illinois and a free person of color "entitled to be respected accordingly, in Person and Property, at all times and places, in the due prosecution of his Lawful concerns." This entitlement was severely infringed under the Illinois Black Codes.
Although Illinois was a free state, the Black Laws took measures to ensure that slaves did not earn their freedom in Illinois. In addition to the requirement that all black citizens needed a certificate of freedom, the Black Codes threatened fines for anyone who brought slaves to Illinois and freed them.2 On top of these restrictions, blacks were unable to vote, sue whites or testify against them in court, or bear arms.3 In short, the Black Laws officially made blacks second-class citizens.

John Jones (1816- 1879) Image courtesy of Chicago History Museum.
Of course, black Chicagoans challenged the Black Codes, and one of the most prominent opponents was John Jones. Jones was born in Green City, North Carolina to a free mulatto mother and a white father who apprenticed him to a white tailor, Richard Clere.4 When the tailor died, Clere’s family tried to claim Jones as their slave, but Jones attained a certificate of freedom in 1838.5 Jones moved to Chicago in 1845 and set up a successful tailor shop at 119 Dearborn Street.6 

Once established in Chicago, Jones began to fight for equal rights for people of color. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, giving slaveholders the right to seek runaway slaves in the free states, but the Chicago City Council largely disapproved of the ordinance.7 Jones joined in protest of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and he and six other men set up a Liberty Association to watch for slave catchers seeking runaway slaves.8 Jones and his wife Mary brought fugitive slaves and such antislavery activists as John Brown and Frederick Douglass into their home.9

In 1864, the Chicago Tribune printed Jones’ pamphlet entitled The Black Laws of Illinois and a Few Reasons Why They Should Be Repealed, and Jones spoke to General Assembly members about why the Black Laws should be eliminated in Illinois; his efforts succeeded in March 1865 when the Illinois General Assembly voted in favor of removing the codes.10

John Jones went on to be elected as the first black Cook County commissioner in 1871, serving a second term from 1872 until 1875. During his time in office Jones helped pass legislation which outlawed segregation in local schools. His tailoring business continued to thrive and was operated by his son-in-law after his death May 31, 1879. His is buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.

John Jones refused to allow the discrimination of African Americans to continue unchallenged in Chicago and throughout the nation. His efforts brought about real change in Illinois, moving the state ever closer to true civic equality. This Black History Month, we remember and thank John Jones for his contribution to bringing rights of free citizenship to all people.

1 Elmer Gertz, “The Black Laws of Illinois,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 6, no. 3 (1963): 463-464.
2 Gertz, “The Black Laws of Illinois,” 465.
3 “Early Chicago: John Jones,” WTTW, accessed February 15, 2012,,4,3,4.
4 Christopher Robert Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century: Volume 1, 1833-1900 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 62.
5 Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century, 62-63.
6 Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century, 71-72.
7 Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century, 100.
8 Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century, 101.
9 “John and Mary Jones: Early Civil Rights Activists,” Encyclopedia Chicago, accessed February 15, 2012,
10 Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century, 141-142.

Reed, Christopher Robert. Black Chicago’s First Century: Volume 1, 1833-1900. Columbia,
MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Encyclopedia Chicago. “John and Mary Jones: Early Civil Rights Activists.” Accessed February 15, 2012.
Gertz, Elmer. “The Black Laws of Illinois.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 6, no. 3 (1963): 454-473.
WTTW, “Early Chicago: John Jones.” Accessed February 15, 2012.,4,3,4.

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