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Joyce Salter-Johnson

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Coming to Illinois:

The history detailed is fascinating. Johnson reveals that the “first Black individuals and families who came to Stephenson County early in its history were attached to European-American families from the East Coast.

Two of the interesting stories are those of the unnamed young girl who came to Stephenson County in 1840 with the Dexter Knowlton family, and the story of Abram Follock (also known as) “Black Abe” who came with the Brewster brothers in 1840. Also, after the Civil War many Blacks migrated to Northern Illinois from Southern states. According to at least one historical account, ‘the household servants during the first years after the Civil War in Stephenson County were Colored People fresh from slavery.’”

The author also found information that linked famous Freeporter Oscar Taylor to a number of the migrating former slaves. Taylor, son of Speaker of the House John W. Taylor, lived in Freeport. His home was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War and was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places. “Mr. Oscar Taylor’s oldest brother, Colonel John W. Taylor, sent 13 emancipated men to find employment in Freeport under the guidance of Mr. Oscar Taylor,” said Salter Johnson.

Later, others also migrated north for jobs as railroads sought poor southern Black men to work for them. “Many of these men ... came north without knowledge that they would be used as strike-breakers during the National Railroad Shop Men’s Strike of 1922,” said the author. “This strike affected Stephenson County and the entire country.”

One man named James Sides who lived in a railroad labor camp would go on to found Freeport’s first Black church, Saint Paul Baptist Church, with his wife Sarah Pearson, who was the granddaughter of slaves.

Salter Johnson also explores the other events that prompted Blacks to come to Stephenson County, including the Mississippi River flood of 1927, as well as the “Great Migration” that happened between 1920 and 1930.

Her photo journal contains “over 600 historical images that illustrate the lives of the settlers, in their truest form,” says Salter Johnson. “Through this lens, we see how the settlers dealt with life during crucial periods in history: Slavery, Jim Crow, migration to the North, resettling, The Depression, World Wars I and II, and the Civil Rights movement. It also shows how family, church and other community activities helped to sustain life for them.”

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Black Abe

Abram Follock (Black Abe)

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