Illinois General Assembly - Full Text of HR0223
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Full Text of HR0223  99th General Assembly




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2    WHEREAS, The members of the Illinois House of
3Representatives wish to recognize the life of John William
4Edinburgh Thomas, the first African-American member of the
5Illinois General Assembly; and
6    WHEREAS, John W.E. Thomas was elected, as a State
7Representative, to the 30th Illinois General Assembly in
8November of 1876, a time when many Illinoisans living still had
9memories of when the Prairie State was a frontier and they
10themselves were facing the challenges of settling it and using
11it as land for crops and railroads; and
12    WHEREAS, John W.E. Thomas was also a pioneer; he was born a
13slave on May 1, 1847 in Montgomery, Alabama; he learned early
14how to read and write, a craft which many of his peers were
15also eager to learn; as a teenager during the American Civil
16War, he engaged in the dangerous work of teaching literacy to
17more than 3 dozen African-Americans, a crime under the laws of
18the Confederacy; and
19    WHEREAS, During the Civil War, the Confederacy imposed
20martial law and military justice upon African-Americans who
21violated its laws within their borders; facing these dangers,
22John W.E. Thomas was supported by his wife and companion, Maria



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1Reynolds, whom he married in 1864; and
2    WHEREAS, After the war, John W.E. Thomas, Maria, and their
3daughter Hester Thomas moved to Chicago in late 1869 or early
41870; the Thomas family found a fast-growing pioneer city
5filled with wooden buildings, small factories, and small shops;
6John opened a live-in grocery store on Federal Street near the
7railroad tracks; he and his family became worshippers at Olivet
8Baptist Church, a fast-growing, African-American-oriented
9place of worship in their now-vanished South Loop neighborhood;
11    WHEREAS, As well as his grocery store, John W.E. Thomas
12continued his activities as a school teacher; with a special
13emphasis on adult and African-American education, his work
14helped people left out of the early public schools of the time;
15a major Chicago newspaper, the Chicago "InterOcean", paid
16tribute to him after he "established the first school for
17colored [sic] people in Chicago, being himself a teacher. The
18child and the gray-haired freedman, side by side, learned their
19letters in his home."; and
20    WHEREAS, During the years that followed the Chicago Fire of
211871, semi-skilled and skilled craft labor was in tremendous
22demand in Chicago construction and manufacturing; trends
23encouraged white and black Chicagoans to work together for



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1economic growth; this economic cooperation led, in turn, to
2political cooperation; and
3    WHEREAS, Olivet Baptist Church and its members, many of
4them small business people, were treated as a part of the
5Chicago Republican Party; church leaders, including John W.E.
6Thomas, were chosen to represent the Third Ward at the Cook
7County GOP convention of 1874; and
8    WHEREAS, In 1876, party leaders chose John W.E. Thomas as
9one of the South Side's candidates to run in November for the
10Illinois House; the young teacher and grocer had to face
11substantial opposition, including opposition on racial
12grounds, to win election; press clippings from the race show
13that some of the opposition came from his own Republican Party;
14making personal speaking appearances throughout his district,
15he courageously overcame these criticisms and was elected with
1611,532 votes to represent what was then the Second District in
17Springfield; he served in 1877 and 1878, years that saw hard
18work in Springfield as the new State Capitol was being built;
19in 1878, he suffered the tragic loss of his wife Maria; he
20would remarry twice and father 7 additional children, 4 of whom
21would join Hester in living to-adulthood; and
22    WHEREAS, John W.E. Thomas left the Illinois House in 1879
23to study law and win admission to the Illinois bar; in 1882 and



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11884, he was elected to serve 2 additional terms in
2Springfield, this time from the Third District in Chicago; as a
3lawyer, he was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee; he
4sponsored and persuaded his committee colleagues to support
5Illinois's first Civil Rights law to ban racial discrimination
6in public places; even as "Jim Crow" laws were becoming the
7norm in states like his native Alabama, Illinois was enacting
8this pioneer law to try to reduce this conduct within the
9State; and
10    WHEREAS, John W.E. Thomas lived the rest of his life in
11Chicago, practicing law and working successfully in real
12estate; as a lifelong Republican, he ran for the Illinois
13electoral college of 1892-93 as a supporter of President
14Benjamin Harrison; he died in Chicago on December 18, 1899;
15upon his death, local newspapers credited him with being one of
16the wealthiest men on Chicago's South Side, with an estate
17valued at more than $100,000 in gold; and
18    WHEREAS, While John W.E. Thomas did not present himself to
19the Chicago press as a practitioner of racial identity
20politics, he was aware of his standing as the first
21African-American member of the Illinois General Assembly; the
22way he described his feelings was with these words: "Without
23egotism, I may be permitted to say that it was a proud day for
24me and for the colored people of the great Republican State of



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1Illinois when, for the first time, and that in the Centennial
2year, a colored man took his seat in the Legislature of that
3state which gave to the world the emancipator of my race, the
4martyred Lincoln."; and
5    WHEREAS, John W.E. Thomas' reference to the Centennial year
6of the United States of America, 1876, shows where he stands in
7the history of Illinois and the history of our Nation;
8therefore, be it
11commend the work, success, and memory of John William Edinburgh
12Thomas, the first African-American member of the Illinois House
13and the Illinois General Assembly; and be it further
14    RESOLVED, That we commend the work of David A. Joens,
15Archivist of the State of Illinois, for his work in researching
16the life of John W.E. Thomas, published in his 2012 book "From
17Slave to State Legislator: John W.E. Thomas, Illinois First
18African American Lawmaker", published by the Southern Illinois
19University Press; and be it further
20    RESOLVED, That suitable copies this resolution should be
21presented to the Black Caucus of the Illinois General Assembly
22and to David A. Joens of the Illinois State Archives.