Notes from the Road with Caroline Kisiel

(photo by Bill Elliott)

2 Caroline Kisiel presenting at the Ohio River Visitor Center 7 16

By Caroline M. Kisiel

Read Time 7 minutes
January 10, 2024

Past Meets Present in Equality, Illinois 

If we listen closely, can we hear the voices from early Illinois history?
If so, what are they telling us…and in 2024, why should we care?

Early in 2023 when I received a request from the Gallatin County Director of Tourism to offer my Road Scholar presentation, “Did Black Lives Matter in Early Illinois? Voices from the Brink of Slavery and Freedom,” which I’ve offered to communities since 2021, at the Ohio River Visitor Center in Equality, Illinois, I did not hesitate to accept. Equality was a locale I had hoped to visit one day, and this was the best reason – a perfect opportunity to present on my research about slavery and abolition in early Illinois in the very region my research covers.

From 1823-1824, Illinois was on the brink of considering a change to its constitution to permit slavery outright. At the time, state constitutions had to designate whether they would be “slave states” or “free states.” Federally mandated by the U.S. law known as the Northwest Ordinance, Illinois had been designated a free state. But proslavery sentiment from leaders sympathetic to enslavement that had been long practiced in the territory meant that some provisions for protecting “old slavery,” as it was called, were built into our first state constitution in 1818. When those provisions were about to sunset in 1825, the state arrived at a threshold of decision which erupted into a heated 18-month public controversy to either abolish or expand slavery in Illinois. 

Caroline Kisiel

Illinois Humanities Road Scholar Caroline M. Kisiel

This was not history I had ever learned attending Illinois schools, and it bumped up against my understanding that Illinois was always a free state. We’re the “Land of Lincoln,” the champions of freedom… right? 

History has gotten a bad rap for being dry and irrelevant to present-day concerns. It has also recently come under attack. Two hundred years after this early Illinois controversy – in a time when we are bombarded by headlines about innumerable controversies daily – events in the long-ago past often pale in comparison. But I feel passionate that this notion is far from the truth! Where this has come to life for me is in archival records of direct communications about the 1823-1824 Illinois slavery controversy. In searching for a creative way to bring the Constitutional Convention moment in Illinois history to life, the idea of harnessing voices in a performance came to mind. By combining historical research with my storytelling and performance background I have sought to embody some of the voices from each side of this controversy through primary source documents such as newspaper editorials, speeches, and personal letters. In hearing three proslavery and three antislavery voices from this controversy, my hope is that one of the most significant and forgotten historical struggles in Illinois history is brought to life… and brought back into relevance. 

Why should we care about listening to their voices in 2024? After all, the voters of 1824 Illinois voted the measure down – Illinois kept its “free state” constitution, and the rest is two hundred years of history. Or is it?  

Consider: had voters gone the other way, this could have shifted the balance of power toward the further entrenchment of the institution of slavery in the 1820s United States. Had Illinois declared it would permit slavery outright via its constitution, this could have paved the way for other proslavery leaders in northern states who were favorable to slavery to push for similar changes, looking to Illinois as an example. What could that have meant to our nation’s trajectory leading up to the start of the Civil War in 1861? Could this have even led to a different outcome of the Civil War?

The far-southern region of Illinois was remote in the nineteenth century and might still be considered remote today. As I drove the nearly six hours from my home in northern Illinois, ominous midsummer storm clouds across open fields were more than a little concerning, and thunder and lightning in the dark forced me to wait out the storm, lest I was caught unaware by a sudden tornado. Spotty cell reception meant relying on the GPS of instinct. It occurred to me that this would have been the GPS of the early nineteenth-century antislavery champions I present in my talk, who forged ahead despite the odds of a mostly proslavery legislature.

The trip was also an opportunity to participate as part of a lecture series assembled in connection with “Spark! Places of Innovation Exhibition” – presented in partnership with the Gallatin County Tourism Committee, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Illinois Humanities. 

Past met present at the Ohio River Visitor Center for several months in the summer of 2023 – the saline industry of the past, which helped build the early nineteenth-century economy, illuminates a forgotten history about enslavement in early Illinois that audiences and visitors can learn from today. 

At the Visitor Center the history of the region was front and center. Exhibits were on display in two separate spaces, and a third space hosted the lectures – which all had robust turnout. 

I had talked about salt production in Gallatin County for years in my presentations, as there was a special provision in the 1818 Illinois Constitution permitting enslavers to bring in enslaved labor to specifically work in this production in the county. In an outside display at the Visitor Center was an actual salt kettle, one that would have been handled by enslaved workers.

3 Spark Smithsonian Exhibit Sign Ohio River Visitor Center photo by Caroline M

Spark! Smithsonian exhibition sign, Ohio River Visitor Center (Photo by Caroline M. Kisiel)

My hosts were gracious and took me to sites in the region where the salt was produced and where the enslaved were managed. We also paid a visit to the Gallatin County Courthouse, where a WPA-era mural is installed behind the judge’s bench in the county courtroom, depicting enslaved workers engaged in salt production. In another example of past meeting present, I was told that as recently as five years ago an African American who had a court case there expressed that they did not feel they could receive a fair trial with this mural on display. In response, the county took measures to install a screen that can be pulled down during hearings. This preserves the important regional history and historical memory, while fostering respect and equality for present-day residents. 

  • 6 With Host Mark York Gallatin County Director of Tourism at Ohio River Visitor Center photo by Caroline M

    Caroline Kisiel with host Mark York Gallatin County Director of Tourism outside the Ohio River Visitor Center (Photo by Caroline M. Kisiel)

  • 5 Smithsonian Museum on Main Street Exhibit on Salt Wells Ohio River Visitor Center photo by Caroline M

    Spark! companion exhibit on salt production in Gallatin County, Ohio River Visitor Center (Photo by Caroline M. Kisiel)

  • 8 Area of Former Salt Well Junction Illinois photo by Caroline M

    Area of former salt well in Junction, Illinois (Photo by Caroline M. Kisiel)

  • 9 Mural in Gallatin County Courthouse photo by Caroline M

    Mural in Gallatin County Courthouse (Photo by Caroline M. Kisiel)

  • 2 Caroline Kisiel presenting at the Ohio River Visitor Center 7 16

    Caroline Kisiel presenting in Equality, Illinois (Photo by Bill Elliott)

While one audience member came to my presentation to learn the history, they informed me they knew of others who refused to come because of the title of the talk. While I know an aspect of my title can be provocative, it is meant to be an invitation for all of us – can we think beyond the language and open ourselves to what can be learned from the sincere question I ask of our history?

On the other hand, several people had traveled across the state from Belleville to attend, and one gentleman and his wife traveled from Evansville, Indiana. “I was curious about the history of southern Illinois,” stated Bill Elliott of Evansville. “I was not aware of the magnitude of historic salt production in Equality and that slaves were used for the labor-intensive work prior to and in the early years of Illinois statehood.”

After I presented the voices from the past, I asked the question to my present-day audience in Equality on that steamy day in July 2023: “So… did Black lives matter in early Illinois?”  

A resounding “No!” erupted from the audience! With my Professor Hat on I reminded everyone of the complexities of the time, and of Illinois’s antislavery leaders who were instrumental in this controversy at keeping slavery at bay in our state… but I nevertheless appreciated this audience's enthusiasm and felt hopeful about their engagement with history.

James Baldwin tells us: “History is not the past, it’s the present. We carry our history with us, we are our history.” Making connections from past to present, from local community to state, and from state to nation is something we must all be vigilant about today. Instead of something irrelevant or a topic to be feared, history can be our partner as we navigate our world today.

About Caroline Kisiel

Caroline M. Kisiel is an Associate Professor at DePaul University and an Illinois Humanities Road Scholar. Follow her on @CarolineKisiel on Twitter and Facebook

About Notes from the Road

This series captures the stories of members of Illinois Humanities’ Road Scholars Speakers Bureau. Since 1997, Illinois writers, storytellers, historians, folklorists, musicians, and living history actors, among others, have shared their expertise and enthusiasm as Road Scholars Speakers with people throughout our state and supported local nonprofit organizations by presenting free cultural and educational programs to local audiences. Learn more about our Road Scholars Speakers Bureau program at

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