Lives in Code: Stories of African American Resilience Under the Illinois Black Codes, 1819-1865

A Road Scholar Program by Caroline Kisiel

1853 black law1 e1677620681110

Aug 17, 2023




Open to the public

As the home of celebrated champions of freedom such as Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, it is often surprising for Illinoisans to learn about the long history of slavery, racial segregation and exclusion in Illinois’s past.

Federally obligated by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to pass its constitution as a free state in 1818, residents in the region prior to Illinois statehood had practiced slavery and indentured servitude since the 1700s. This laid the groundwork for a series of harsh laws passed post-statehood called the Illinois Black Codes, which regulated the lives of enslaved people, indentured servants and free Blacks in Illinois from 1819-1865 – a period of 46 years.

1853 black law1 e1677620681110

Among the restrictions under these Codes, free Blacks residing in the state were required to possess certificates of freedom and register themselves and family members with the court; hiring of free Blacks who did not possess certificates of freedom was considered a crime; bringing slaves into the state for the purpose of freeing them was deemed a crime, and if discovered, a fine of $1,000 was to be imposed; and enslaved people or servants were barred from selling goods, gathering in groups of three or more, or traveling more than ten miles from their master’s home.

Despite these restrictions, African Americans in nineteenth-century Illinois persevered. They forged livelihoods and established communities; they purchased land; they abided by the draconian laws, registering themselves and family members; and they sheltered, protected and defended runaways, or “freedom seekers.” This presentation will highlight stories of African American resilience under the Illinois Black Codes.

Audiences will learn about Gilbert Burres, a free Black resident of Albion in Edwards County, who first registered with the county clerk as a free person of color in 1824, and returned to the county clerk seven times over the next 36 years to register himself, his wife and his children as his family grew. “Uncle Joe” Higginbotham, an ex-slave, arrived in Clay County around 1835 and reportedly acquired 800 acres of land during his time in Illinois, raising a family and attracting other free Black settlers. Free Black settlements such as Brooklyn and New Philadelphia were established and attracted settlers, and these communities were often safe harbors for northbound freedom seekers. And free Black John Jones, a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Chicago, spoke out against the cruelty of the Codes and championed the cause of repealing them through lobbying with lawmakers and publishing “The Black Laws of Illinois and a Few Reasons Why They Should be Repealed” (1864). These are just a few of the stories of African American resilience from this harsh period that will be illuminated in this presentation, which celebrates our Illinois forbears who persevered despite the Codes.

This event is Free and Open to the public. For more information, please contact Sarah Salto at

Learn more about Caroline Kisiel, this program, and how to book it.


Lake County Forest Preserves