Illinois boasts impressive line of African-Americans

By MURPHY BROWNE

Black American pioneer, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, was the first known settler to build a house and open a trading post in what is now known as Chicago. Du Sable was a most intriguing man. Born in Haiti, he was educated in Paris and later worked as a seaman for his father.

Fearful of being enslaved after being shipwrecked in New Orleans, he traveled north and settled in Eschikagou. There he married a Potawatami Indian and raised two children. During that time he became well known as a fur trapper. He also expanded his home and land into a major settlement that included a dairy, bake house, smokehouse, poultry house, workshop, stable, barn and mill.

The site of Du Sable’s home is marked by a plaque on the northeast approach to the Michigan Avenue Bridge. On February 20, 1987, he was honoured on the 10th stamp in the U.S. Black Heritage Series.

From the March 18, 1996 edition of Jet magazine:

“Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti, in 1745. His mother, an enslaved African woman, was killed when he was about ten years old. His father, who was his mother’s ‘owner’, sent Du Sable to be educated in France, then later employed him as a seaman.

“Du Sable was 20 years old when he was shipwrecked near New Orleans and had to go into hiding for fear of being enslaved on U.S. soil. He eventually made his way to the area now known as Chicago and was the first African settler as well as the first ‘non-native’ settler in that area”.

It speaks volumes about the normalcy of a White supremacist culture that even among the indigenous people of the area Du Sable’s presence was noted as: “The first White man was a Black man”. In the years that the Du Sable family (his wife, Catherine, son Jean and daughter, Suzanne) lived there, they provided stability to an area that was primarily frequented by itinerant traders. People as far away as the east coast knew Du Sable as the only source of farmed produce in the area.

Du Sable’s trading post was very prosperous with commercial buildings, docks, a mansion house, fruit orchards and livestock. The settlement later became a small community with a church, school and store. Settlers from Quebec came to Du Sable’s post because of difficulties with the English who enforced strict rules regarding travel and free trade and heavily taxed the French Canadians. Many of them wanted to buy land from Du Sable but, instead of selling, he gave them some land.

It is somewhat of a mystery why this wealthy African-American and his Native wife in 1800 sold their prosperous holdings, including their land, to a White trader for a mere $1,200. Du Sable and his wife moved to St. Charles, Missouri and his wife died soon after they moved.

When Du Sable transitioned on August 28, 1818, he had been living in poverty for almost four years. He is buried in the Borromeo Cemetery in St Charles, Missouri. Du Sable, although popularly known as “The Father of Chicago”, for generations was not officially recognized until October 26, 1968 by the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago as the Founder of Chicago.

Du Sable is the first in an impressive line of African-Americans (from Ida Bell Wells-Barnett to Barack Hussein Obama) who have lived in Chicago. Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862-March 25, 1913) was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but lived in Chicago from 1895 (following her marriage to Ferdinand L. Barnett) until 1913.

Wells-Barnett became the Rosa Parks of her generation when on September 15, 1883, the then 21-year-old Ida Bell Wells refused to obey a conductor’s order that she leave the “ladies’ car” which was for the exclusive use of White women, on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Line train.

The “coloured” car was used by men of any race because smoking, drinking alcohol and swearing was permitted and it was also the only place where African-American women travelers were permitted to sit. The conductor tore Wells’ dress as he tried to remove her from the “ladies car”. In spite of being an educated, well-dressed lady, she “determined not to be taken, hooked her feet under the seat in front of her, began scratching the conductor with her nails, and then bit his hands deeply enough to draw blood”.

The conductor, with the help of a few passengers, pried Wells from her seat and dragged her off the train. She sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Line and, in December 1884, she won her case and was awarded damages of $500. The judge found that Wells was a person of “ladylike appearance and deportment, a school teacher and one who might be expected to object to traveling in the company of rough and boisterous men”.

Wells did not enjoy her legal victory for long; the local court decision was overturned (1887) after the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s successful appeal to the Superior Court. This incident moved Wells to begin writing about the plight of African-Americans and the daily injustices they faced. She became a journalist full time after her criticism of the racist practices of the school board led to her dismissal from teaching in 1891.

As editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, Wells gained national attention when she launched an anti-lynching campaign. Three of her friends who owned a grocery store in Memphis were lynched in 1892 because the owner of the White grocery store was jealous of their success.

Wells wrote a scathing expose of the lynching and the office of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight was destroyed by a gang of White men. Wells left Memphis and, in 1892, published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, in which she wrote that lynching was “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized”. She spent the rest of her life crusading against the White supremacist culture that allowed the routine lynching of African-American men, women and children.

When Du Sable settled in Chicago in 1773 he was the sole non-native inhabitant; when he and his family left in 1800, the settlers were White. Paula Giddings, an African-American historian, writes in Ida: A Sword Among Lions (published in 2008): “The first African American community emerged in the 1840s and was made up largely of fugitive slaves (Illinois was bordered by the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri) and free Blacks from the East. An important ‘stop’ on the Underground Railroad, a thousand Blacks lived in the city by 1860″.

Since Du Sable, notable African-American Chicagoans have included Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926), the first American to gain an international pilot’s license; John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005), owner and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines; Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000), poet; Richard Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960), author; Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), jazz musician; Harold Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987), Chicago’s first African-American mayor; Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson Sr.; U.S. Representative Jesse Louis Jackson Jr.; Oprah Winfrey and Barack Hussein Obama, the first African-American president.

tiakoma@aol.com

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