Freedom in Illinois, 1850s-1860s

Author: Dr. Jenny Thompson, Director of Education, Evanston History Center,

Grade Levels: Middle School and High School


  • An American Biography: Maria Murray Robinson

  • The (Incomplete) Historical Record

  • The Vane Household on the Eve of the American Civil War, 1860

  • A Request for a Pardon: the Rights and Benefits of Citizenship

  • Freedom Seekers


Kate Masur, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021). Especially Chapter 7, “Injustice and Oppression Incarnate: Illinois and a Nation Divided in the 1850s.”  Masur’s book is available for purchase (click link to buy from Bookends & Beginnings) or find it at Evanston Public Library.

The 1819 Black Law (Also known as a “Black Code”):

The 1853 Exclusion Law:

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850:

U.S. Census, Evanston, Illinois, 1860.

Certificate of Freedom, 1844. Issued to John Jones.

U.S. Census, Evanston, Illinois, 1900.

U.S. Slave Schedule, Cambridge, Dorchester County, Maryland, September 1860.

Request for a Presidential Pardon, W.H.H. Raleigh, July 1865.

President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation “Granting Full Pardon and Amnesty to All Persons Engaged in the Late Rebellion,” 1868.

Download these educational materials here: Freedom in Illinois, 1850s-1860s, Jenny Thompson, Teaching Materials Jan 11 2022

Bird’s Eye View:

The materials included below are intended to provide educators with ideas to engage students with the larger history documented in Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done. Educators are encouraged to use Masur’s book as the foundation for examining social, historical, political, and legal themes related to the materials below. In particular, educators are encouraged to focus on chapter 7, “Injustice and Oppression Incarnate: Illinois and a Nation Divided in the 1850s.” The following materials are grounded in local Evanston and Chicago history. Educators may wish to use the material in order to encourage student discussions and shape essay questions and projects. Feel free to adapt the materials to your own needs.

Getting Started:

In the early 19th century, Illinois was known as a “free state.” It was not one of the states where slavery was legal. However, as Kate Masur documents in her book, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Illinois passed various pieces of legislation that restricted Black people and people of color who lived in or wished to move to Illinois. Illinois was not alone in passing such a laws – commonly referred to as “black laws” or “black codes;” states across the country had similar provisions and laws.

While there were those who fought against the laws and their impact, as Masur documents, there were many more who not only supported them, but enforced them, both through legal means and through practice.

The 1819 Illinois Black Code:

Just a few months after Illinois was admitted to the union, Illinois’ first General Assembly passed its first law limiting the freedom of Black people and people of color in the state. The 1819 law was titled “An Act Respecting Free Negroes, Mulattos, Servants, and Slaves.” The lengthy law laid out in 25 sections the legal requirements that “free persons of color” needed to meet in order to live in Illinois. One of the sections focused on the requirement for people of color to obtain a certificate signed by a judicial or civil authority testifying that the person was indeed free. These were known as “certificates of freedom.”

The 1853 Illinois Exclusion Law:

Kate Masur explains that Illinois’ 1853 Exclusion law “made it a crime for anyone to bring free or enslaved African Americans into Illinois. African Americans who entered the state and remained more than 10 days could be found guilty of a ‘high misdemeanor’ and fined $50. If they couldn’t pay the fine they were subject to imprisonment and sale at public auction.” As Masur observes, the law “like other anti-black measures gave white people a sense of power and impelled some to vigilantism” and it “sent a message to African Americans were not wanted in Illinois.”

Some Beginning Discussion Questions: The Illinois Black Codes and the Concept of Freedom

  • Freedom as a right, an idea, and a concept is a cornerstone of the American narrative. From the founding of the United States to the American Civil War to the modern Civil Rights Movement and to our own day, “freedom” has been both a rallying cry and a demand. What constitutes freedom to you? How do you define freedom?

  • Based on Kate Masur’s look at Illinois, what constraints were legally put on freedom? Why were they imposed? Who put them there? Whom did they affect? How did those who constrained others’ freedom believe they had the power to do so?

  • Given the 1819 and 1853 Illinois laws, how would you describe the nature of the so-called “free state” of Illinois? In what ways did these laws limit freedom?

  • Illinois was admitted to the Union as a “free state.” What does that mean to you given the existence of the Black Codes?

  • Compare and contrast the Bill of Rights with the Black Code and Exclusion Law. How do the documents differ in the ways the rights of citizens in the United States were described and protected?

  • Given the existence of the Black Codes, do you believe that all free people in the United States equally protected by the Constitution? What were the limits on citizenship and freedom?

  • How might the Black Codes also connect with the experiences of other groups who had limited access to freedom and its related opportunities, including women, Native Americans, immigrants and others?

Now, let’s turn to some stories related to this history that are rooted in our own community.

An American Biography: Maria Murray Robinson

U.S. Census, Evanston, Illinois, 1860. Maria Murray (Robinson) (line 17) was the first recorded Black resident in Evanston, Illinois.  


Born c. 1838-1840, Maria Murray Robinson was enslaved, most likely in Maryland. In about 1850, Allen and Mary Scott Vane brought Maria, as a child, to Chicago and later to Evanston. The Vanes were a white family from Cambridge, Dorchester County, Maryland, an area heavily populated by enslavers. (Dorchester County was the location of a major port used in the slave trade; it was also the birthplace of Harriet Tubman). The Vanes came from a long line of slaveholders.

According to Robinson’s 1901 obituary, when Robinson was a child she was enslaved on a plantation in Maryland by Mary Scott Vane’s uncle. During a visit to her uncle’s home in 1847, Mary Scott Vane asked her uncle if she might “have” one of the children he enslaved there. He said she could take a little girl named Maria. Mary Scott Vane took Maria home. Because there was reportedly danger of Maria “being abducted and sold into slavery again,” Mary Scott Vane supposedly secured “legal emancipation papers” for little Maria.[1] (An ongoing effort to locate those papers has been unsuccessful thus far.)

In 1848-1849, the Vanes moved to Chicago. They are recorded on the 1850 U.S. Census as living in Chicago with 12 year old Maria (no last name given). Once the Vanes came to Chicago, they found themselves in a city where the abolition movement flourished, and some people were reportedly “suspicious” of the fact that Maria lived with the Vanes, perhaps assuming that she was not entirely free. Around 1855, the Vanes, including Maria, moved to Evanston. In the U.S. Census of 1860, 20 year old Maria is recorded as a “domestic” (maid/servant) in the Vane household.

The same year that the Vanes and Maria moved to Illinois, 1848, the state approved a new constitution which forbade slavery. However, a few years later, in 1853, the state legislature passed an Exclusion Law which banned all free Black people from entering Illinois.

Just two years after the 1855 law passed, the Vanes and Maria Murray moved to Evanston.

Discussion questions/topics:

  • Discuss how the Vane’s family history and slaveholding past might have shaped the ways they viewed slavery and Maria herself.

  • Maria was listed as a “domestic” living and working in the Vane household. While we do not know her full life history, we do know that she was formerly enslaved, separated from her family of origin, brought to Illinois as a child, and apparently employed as a domestic worker. Do you believe that her status as servant reveals specific boundaries to the freedom she might have enjoyed once coming to Illinois? Discuss the difficulties Maria might have faced in childhood and the ways in which those difficulties might have impacted her life as she grew older.

  • Evanston, along with Chicago, was a town noted for some degree of abolitionism. Do you believe the Vanes’ actions in taking Maria from Maryland and having her serve as a domestic in their home were in line with the principles of abolition and opposition to slavery?

“The Vanes came from Maryland with ideas of the South, and as Maria was an old, faithful and devoted servant, she was much esteemed and made of by the family, besides being a source of interest and curiosity to the younger residents of Evanston.”[2]

         The above description of some Evanston residents’ reaction to Maria Murray Robinson offers insight into the climate in which she lived. What do you make of the statement that she was “a source of interest and curiosity?” What do you think “ideas of the South” might mean in terms of the Vanes’ values and attitudes? Given that the Vanes brought Maria to Illinois with them, and given that the state passed a series of laws restricting the freedoms of Black residents, how do you think these laws would have impacted Maria? Afterall, she was “free” from slavery, but was living as a domestic in a state that was one of the most restricted in relations to the rights of Black people. How do you think the passage of the Illinois laws might have impacted Maria’s life and Evanston residents’ views of her? Take a look at the “Certificate of Freedom” below. What is your reaction to such a document? Do you believe such a document would protect the “freedom” of its bearer?

Certificate of Freedom, 1844. Issued to John Jones. (See below for more about Jones.)

John Jones (1816-1879) and Mary Jane Richardson Jones (1820-1910), Wikimedia.

Kate Masur writes about John Jones and Mary Jane Richardson Jones. The couple moved from Tennessee to Chicago in the 1840s. Not only were they actively involved in the political and religious life of Chicago, but they were prominent abolitionists. They used their own home to house freedom seekers who had escaped enslavement. They fought for years against the Black codes and worked to lobby for and press legislators to support full rights and freedom for Black citizens. In 1871, Jones was elected as Cook County Commissioner, (the first Black person elected to public office in the State of Illinois).

In order to live legally under Illinois’ Black Code, the Jones had to register with the county. (See certificate above.) Discuss the ways in which this legal requirement would have impacted people like the Jones from living their lives freely in Illinois. How do you think the laws might have compelled them to take action politically to fight against the laws and help others? 


George Robinson, February 8, 1907. Evanston History Center.

Maria Murray Robinson and George Robinson

In 1868, Maria married George Robinson (c.1836-1911). George Robinson, pictured above, was a formerly enslaved man from Virginia. He came to Evanston after the American Civil War with a white Evanston resident named James Ludlam (1833-1908). Ludlam served as an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. It is believed that George Robinson worked for Ludlam during the war, having been freed by Union troops. He was considered “contraband:” a term used during the war to describe formerly enslaved people who had been liberated by Union Army troops.

After George Robinson arrived in Evanston, he worked for Ludlam at his home. Eventually, George Robinson purchased his own home at 325 Dempster Street in Evanston. After their wedding, Maria Murray Robinson and George Robinson lived together in that house. (In 2020, the Robinson home on Dempster Street was designated one of Evanston’s African American Heritage Sites.) In 1882, Maria and George Robinson were among the founders of Evanston’s Second Baptist Church and they later helped found Mount Zion Baptist Church. Maria Murray Robinson died in 1901. George Robinson remarried and lived until 1911. 

Essay Question: Freedom in Illinois & White Sponsors of “Emancipation”

As formerly enslaved people, Maria Murray Robinson and George Robinson were brought to Illinois by white people. George Robinson arrived in Evanston after the passage of the 1853 Exclusion law. How do you think Maria and George’s lives might have been impacted by the existence of that law? What constraints on their freedom might that law have placed on them and their plans for their futures? Do you believe that the white people (the Vanes and James Ludlam) who brought Maria and George to Illinois, were truly able to secure their “freedom” for them? What other constraints on their freedom did they face in Illinois?

U.S. Census, Evanston, Illinois, 1900. Maria and George Robinson are listed on lines 6 and 5.

The (Incomplete) Historical Record

On the 1900 U.S. Census Maria Murray Robinson is listed as having had two children, both of whom were no longer alive. George Robinson listed the fact that he did not know how to read or write. These significant facts that describe the Robinsons’ lives are some of the rare pieces of evidence recorded in the historical record. Indeed, enslaved people were not granted the same rights to be “recorded” on the historical record as white people were. To that end, they generally did not have birth certificates, marriage certificates, photographic portraits of themselves or their family members, and other records and mementos that documented their lives. U.S. census records did not record the names, birth locations, information on parents, etc. of enslaved people. We have no known photographs of Maria Murray Robinson. We have just one (known) photograph of George Robinson.

Essay Question:  How do the limits on the historical record of Black Americans who were enslaved impact our understanding of their biographies? Why do these limits exist? How do they reflect the ways in which the dominant white society defined and treated Black Americans? How does an absence in the historical record impact Americans’ understanding of the experiences and history of Black Americans? In particular, in what ways do the facts (listed above) which Maria and George recorded on the 1900 U.S. Census reveal the nature of the lives of formerly enslaved people in the United States? What are lasting impacts of slavery do they reveal?

The Vane Household on the Eve of the American Civil War, 1860

In 1860, along with Maria Murray, there was another 20 year old living in the Vane’s Evanston household: William Henry Harrison Rawleigh, Mary Scott Vane’s half-brother. Rawleigh came to Evanston to study at Northwestern University. Raleigh was born in Cambridge, Maryland, a slave owning state. The Rawleighs (along with the Vanes) had been slaveholders for generations.

The same year the 1860 census was taken in Evanston, Rawleigh’s mother, Eliza Rawleigh, was recorded as enslaving five Black people, ranging in age from 29 years to 8 years old, at her home in Cambridge, Maryland.

U.S. Slave Schedule, Cambridge, Maryland, September 1860. Eliza Rawleigh’s name appears on line 17, followed by the unnamed Black men, women, and child whom she enslaved on her property.

A year after Rawleigh graduated from Northwestern University he left Evanston upon the outbreak of the American Civil War.  He went to Virginia where he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He would serve in the war as an officer until the Confederate surrender in April 1865.

Imagine how Maria Murray Robinson might have felt living in the same house as William Rawleigh. What kinds of conflicts might have arisen as a result of his presence and his subsequent service fighting for the Confederacy during the war? Although Maria and William were peers in terms of age, discuss the differences in their life stories. Compare and contrast the opportunities each would have had and the nature of the freedom each enjoyed in Illinois and Maryland.

A Request for a Pardon: the Rights and Benefits of Citizenship

Request for a Presidential Pardon, W.H.H. Rawleigh, July 1865.

Text transcribed from the above document: “His excellency Andrew Johnson president U. States: having been engaged, as a Marylander, in the recent rebellion in the South and excluded from your general immunity proclamation of May 29, 1865, I herewith most humbly petition your clemency in the granting me a special pardon and a return to the privileges and liberty of a citizen of the state and U. States. I am not charged with any special misdemeanor other than the ? or complicity in the rebellion, when I served as an enlisted man of artillery until captured and paroled by General Grant at Appomattox House, VA  April 11, 1865. With the wish that I may again be permitted to enjoy the rights and benefits of citizenship I remain your obt. servant, W.H.H. Raleigh.”

“With the wish that I may again be permitted the rights and benefits of Citizenship,” Rawleigh wrote to the U.S. President in July 1865 and asked to be granted an official pardon for having served as a soldier during the “Rebellion,” as the American Civil War was sometimes called. Discuss the reasons for and against granting Raleigh a pardon. If Maria Murray Robinson had the authority to grant such pardons, what might her reaction have been to his request? Imagine how she might decide the case. Discuss what you believe to be “the rights and benefits of citizenship” in the United States. In what ways, if at all, do you believe Robinson and Rawleigh differed in the rights and benefits they enjoyed in their lives?

Read: President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation “Granting Full Pardon and Amnesty to All Persons Engaged in the Late Rebellion,” 1868.

Freedom Seekers

Read: The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850:

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave act was passed by the U.S. Congress. The law, which amplified an earlier 1793 law, made it legal for so-called “slave-hunters” to seize people who were assumed to be “fugitive” slaves (also known as “freedom seekers”) who escaped from one state into another or into a federal territory. Such seizures could be made by anyone and could be legally executed without due process of law. The law also prohibited anyone from aiding escaped freedom seekers.

Kate Masur writes that “the 1850 fugitive slave act had particular ramifications in Illinois because one of the main one of the compromises main architects, Stephen A. Douglas, was the state senior senator and the most powerful Democrat in a Democrat dominated state.… Black and white Chicagoans rebelled openly against the fugitive slave act. The city’s black population was small but mighty – about 320 people and 1% of the population in 1850.” (238)

In November 1860, the plight of a 20-year-old Black woman, Eliza Grayson, made national headlines. Grayson was a freedom seeker from Nebraska. One of the first people to be enslaved in Nebraska, Grayson and another young woman, named Celia (thought to be Eliza’s sister), made a 500-mile journey from Nebraska to Chicago to seek freedom. The two women were helped by a man named John Williamson; they found refuge along the way in safe houses on the Underground Railroad.

It is unknown where Celia Grayson ended up, but Eliza Grayson found her way to Chicago where she lived for about two years after her escape.

Stephen Frier Nuckolls, an enslaver who had brought both the Grayson sisters to Nebraska from Virginia, received a tip that Eliza Grayson was in Chicago. Nuckolls sought to claim what he believed to be his legal right to Eliza Grayson. He came to Chicago and secured an arrest warrant. George Anderson, a deputy sheriff in Chicago, refused to serve the warrant.

On the evening of November 12, 1860, Nuckolls and a hired kidnapper, Jake Newsome, seized Grayson on Clark street in Chicago. Grayson, reportedly screaming as the two men dragged her along the street, drew a crowd of onlookers. Chancellor Jenks, a lawyer and Evanston resident, was on the scene (some say he had been tipped off by a friend and fellow abolitionist in the court system who had word of Nuckolls’ arrest warrant). Jenks and Newsome reportedly fought physically on the street as Jenks attempted to rescue Grayson.

Police arrived and took Grayson and Nuckolls into custody.

That night, Jenks swore out an arrest warrant charging Grayson with disorderly conduct. Working with two other men, Calvin De Wolf and George Anderson, who were also abolitionists and who worked within the criminal court system, Jenks had the warrant served by Anderson. The warrant allowed him to take Grayson from the police station with the purported purpose of producing her before a magistrate. When Anderson went to transfer Grayson, he ushered her out on the street where a crowd had gathered. In an instant, Grayson was gone, moved off by abolitionists in the crowd who were working in tandem with Anderson. She was on her way to Canada and freedom.  

A Federal Grand Jury in Chicago indicted Jenks, along with his “co-conspirators,” Calvin De Wolf and George Anderson, and several others, on the charge of violating the Fugitive Slave Law. Nuckolls was released from jail and returned to Nebraska.

President James Buchanan was outraged when he learned of the incident. He telegraphed the United States Attorney at Chicago: “Prosecute Chancellor Jenks to the full extent of the law. For a private citizen to be engaged in such nefarious practices as he is charged with is bad enough; but a high officer of the Court, should be severely dealt with.”

The case against Jenks and the others proceeded. But by December 1861, the charges were dropped.  

What happened to Eliza Grayson? As Dennis Rodkin put it: “She appears to have passed out of living memory with no monument to remember her by.”

Project: Write A New Biography

Stephen Friel Nuckolls (1825- 1879) was one of the first people to bring enslaved people, including the Grayson sisters, to the territory of Nebraska when he moved there from Virginia in 1854. He founded Nebraska City; held several political offices, including as delegate to the U.S. Congress from Wyoming Territory. A county and a park in Nebraska bear his name.

Many current websites identify Nuckolls without any mention of his slaveholding past. Indeed, he is even praised as a “prominent pioneer.” (See links below.);,_Nebraska;,-Stephen-Friel-(N000166)/

Take a look at the sites above and write a new biography for Nuckolls to include and incorporate details of his slaveholding past, including the incident with Eliza Grayson. How does the addition of that information change the way his life might be understood? Why do you think the other biographies fail to mention the significant biographical information concerning his slaveholding past? 

Project: Designing a Memorial

While Nuckolls’ life is well documented and praised, what of the lives of Eliza and Celia Grayson? Little is known about their lives and nothing is known for certain about what happened to them, although research is being done to learn more (see below). Imagine you have been hired to create a memorial for Eliza, Celia, or both. What do you design? What does your design say about the Grayson sisters and their lives and how they should be remembered? Why are their stories important to understanding American history?

See some examples of memorials/monuments:

“Swing Low,” Alison Saar, 2008, Memorial to Harriet Tubman, Harlem, New York:

“Coming Home,” Rod Moorehead, Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana:

Author’s Note: Please feel free to share these materials. Many thanks to Kate Masur for reading through these materials and providing feedback. Questions? Email me:

[1] Obituary, Maria Murray Robinson, Evanston News Index, May 19, 1901.

[2] Clyde D. Foster, Evanston’s Yesterdays (Evanston, IL: 1956), 14. Foster’s account of the Vanes and Maria is drawn from an article published in the Evanston Press, May 17, 1902.