Illinois During the Gilded Age

Race and Ethnicity in Gilded-Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

The conclusion of the Civil War and the passage of both the Fourteenth Amendment and Reconstruction civil rights acts obliged the state of Illinois to lift its laws prohibiting African-Americans from voting and serving on juries. In this period the city of Chicago began to educate black children alongside whites, and African-Americans gained access to state-funded colleges as well. But blacks made up less than 2% of the population in the North, and many whites remained ambivalent or outright hostile to their struggle for full social equality. Thus African-Americans made slow progress in Illinois and across the North.

Many white workers in Illinois feared competition from African-Americans trying to improve their lot, and sought to restrict blacks to unskilled labor. Many labor unions, with some notable exceptions, refused to let African-Americans become members. Tradesmen maneuvered to keep African-Americans out of apprenticeship programs. Black artisans migrating from the South often found themselves restricted to a black-only clientele by white consumers anxious about African-Americans' social rise.

Many African-Americans came to central and southern Illinois to work as coal miners. Often mine owners recruited southern blacks to come north and work in mines in order to replace striking white workers. Nevertheless, the United Mine Workers organized integrated, "mixed" locals, and by the end of the nineteenth century over 20,000 African Americans belonged to the UMW.

Many African-Americans, and especially women, worked as servants. Like blacks working as unskilled laborers, they found that they were paid far less than whites for comparable service. This low pay often prevented African-Americans from marrying and starting families until later in life, when they had attained some financial stability. African-Americans in the North also faced a rigid pattern of residential segregation that confined them to specific neighborhoods. Frustrated by the slow pace of social change, African-American leaders like Benjamin Singleton and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner advocated colonization, or blacks' removal to Africa to begin a new society there.

The American legal system did little to help African Americans in this period. In 1883 the United States Supreme Court upheld laws denying African-Americans access to private facilities like trains, theaters and hotels, terming their exclusion a "private wrong" outside the scope of the law. After black activists organized to challenge this ruling, the court upheld the doctrine in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson, which articulated a doctrine of "separate but equal."1

Lucy ParsonsIda B. Wells

As it grew, Chicago became a center of black political and intellectual life. Lucy Parsons (pictured at right) was a renowned orator, and helped to organize the Chicago Working Women's Union. In 1891 she began publishing her own newspaper – Freedom. Ferdinand Barnett graduated from the City of Chicago law school and became the first black assistant state's attorney in Illinois. He also founded and edited the Chicago Conservator, a newspaper devoted to the fight for black equality. In 1895 he married the noted southern political activist, journalist and lecturer Ida B. Wells (pictured at left), who joined him in Chicago.

Born a child of Mississippi slaves in 1862, Wells found education and began teaching school as a teenager. Working as an educator in Memphis, Wells challenged the southern practice of segregated facilities by suing a railroad, and became a journalist devoted to exposing blacks' unfair lot in society. In 1892 three of her friends were lynched by white mobs, and Wells wrote scathing exposes of the practice which received wide national attention. Facing intimidation and violence in Memphis, she became a traveling lecturer before marrying Barnett.

Wells confronted the northern reform establishment as well as southern racism. In the 1890s she criticized Frances Willard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union for their support of southern reformers who accepted the practice of lynching. In 1894 she published The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, which detailed blacks' exclusion from the fair by white organizers. After 1895 Wells largely confined herself to local political causes and raising her family.

While African-Americans were largely discouraged or barred from taking part in the World's Columbian Exposition, black women did succeed in speaking before the Women's Congress at the fair. One speech by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper demanded justice for her race and defined the work of middle-class black women in the coming era.

Louis LinggAfrican-Americans in the North and South were overwhelmingly Republican in politics, but found themselves disappointed as their party's white majority lost interest in the tasks of southern Reconstruction and black social equality. Many turned to private organizations, including churches and social clubs, for the social outlets and status that white society denied to blacks. By the 1890s, middle-class black women especially formed clubs that resembled white women's organizations in their devotion to education, suffrage, temperance, moral reform, and self-help.

Other new ethnic groups came to Chicago in this period as well. European immigration began again at the conclusion of the Civil War, and Chicago, situated at the western end of the Great Lakes, became a major destination. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 only accelerated immigration to the city by opening up many new positions in the construction trades and other industries devoted to rebuilding the area. Many of the new immigrants came to America from southern and eastern Europe, as well as Ireland.

Immigrants often arrived in cities where friends or family members had already set down roots. This strategy identified favorable locations for immigration, and helped to build new communities. Like African-Americans, many new immigrants faced housing segregation and limited opportunities in business, the trades and unions. Often immigrants responded by asserting themselves in economic sectors largely overlooked by native-born whites.

In the 1870s and 1880s Chicago became a city of newcomers, with a new population that dwarfed the native-born elites who had arrived before the Civil War. This often-unstable mix clashed over issues like the regulation or outright prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Many Yankee reformers such as Frances Willard identified alcohol abuse as a leading cause of poverty, family disintegration, and violence against women. All too often, they believed, men squandered their paychecks on strong drink, leaving their families to starve. But many of the new immigrants came to America from societies in which beer and wine played central roles. Many German-Americans, outraged at the Republican Party's tilt toward the reformers' position, switched their allegiance to the Democrats in this period.

Many Irish had come to Illinois in the decades before the Civil War to help build the Illinois and Michigan Canal. In the years after the conflict they formed increasingly strong community organizations, many times around the Catholic Church. The cause of Irish independence from England also informed many groups, including an unfortunate armed sortie into British Canada at the Civil War's close. In the Gilded Age, Irish-Americans played significant roles in the formation of labor unions, especially the Knights of Labor. The Irish technique of the boycott gave the Knights and other unions a powerful new tool in their struggle to match the economic, political and legal power of employers.

Other immigrants brought radical intellectual and political traditions to America. German and Eastern European immigrants played large roles in the organization of Chicago's socialist and anarchist movements. When these movements emerged in the spotlight caused by the Great Strike of 1877 and, especially, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, many middle-class, native-born whites quickly associated radicalism and labor violence with immigrants. Louis Lingg (pictured at right) was a German-born American anarchist who was convicted of taking part in a criminal conspiracy that planned the Haymarket Sqaure bombing.

Hull HouseJane Addams, the daughter of a wealthy Illinois businessman, reached out to the city’s recent immigrants with the founding of Hull House (pictured at left) in 1889. Following the example of a group of English reformers who took up residence in an impoverished London neighborhood, Adams and a growing community of female volunteers from similarly privileged backgrounds provided immigrants with access to medical care, a variety of free educational programs, a summer camp for children, and clubs for children and adults. Adams and her fellow volunteers also performed detailed studies of the surrounding neighborhood pertaining to such issues as sanitation, housing, and working conditions, and successfully lobbied for new laws bearing on these and other matters at different levels of government. In spite of Hull House’s efforts, most immigrants and their children continued to face discrimination and limited opportunities, and often relied upon their own ethnic communities for social life and business activities

By 1892 Illinois had elected its first foreign-born governor, John Peter Altgeld. The Governor successfully passed new child labor and workplace safety laws. Altgeld’s ethnicity often became a subject of criticism among native-born opponents, especially in the context of his decision to pardon three men convicted of the Haymarket bombing of 1886. Despite his critics, Altgeld became a major figure in the Democratic Party, and opposed Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s use of federal troops to put down the strike. Although he was defeated in his campaign for re-election in 1896 and never held public office again, Altgeld’s electoral success and policies in Illinois provided a brief glimpse of a new politics, uniting many Americans descended from recent immigrants behind active government efforts to regulate economic life, which would emerge in the twentieth century.