The Williams Family of Mattoon, Illinois:
(left to right) James Douglass Williams, James Roy Williams,
Roberta Ruth Williams, and Judith Williams Lyles.
Mr. James R. Williams and Mrs. Roberta Williams,
Mrs. Lavenia Smith Williams and Mr. Sidney
Annabel Norton, Kenneth H. Norton, Jr., Hazel
Derrickson, and Elijah Derrickson at El Grotto Supper Club
in Chicago, Illinois, c. 1945.
Mr. and Mrs. George Nash of Charleston, Illinois
and parents of Minnie Portee. Mr. Nash was of African and
Native Indian parentage.
Mrs. Elizabeth Hopgood and Mr. Joseph Hopgood
cutting their 50th Wedding Anniversary cake, 1967.
Between 1840 and 2000 when census figures were
available, black population in the county has risen and fallen depending
on prevailing socioeconomic conditions within and outside the county.
Based on a study carried out by two Eastern Illinois University
sociology professors, Gary Foster and Craig Eckert, "The trend
reflected in the total county population is nearly a unilinear increase
over the sixteen decades [1840 - 2000], while the increase in the
African American population was erratic, coinciding with, and perhaps
reflecting the vagaries of history." (14) They went further
to explain that,
the proportion of blacks in Coles County never
approximated the proportion of blacks in the national population
suggests that few economic opportunities for blacks and to exploit
blacks as labor force were present historically. Agriculturally,
the history of Coles County is one of homestead (family) agriculture,
not plantation or commercial agriculture, with little need for outside
labor and by 1870, little land remained available. The community
where 95.9% of blacks were interred [Mattoon] was a railroad town
with an industrial base, but always small. Hence, except for scattered
enclaves of exceptions, historically, the rural Midwest was not
a Beulah Land for African Americans following emancipation. (15)
While African Americans were recognized for individual
accomplishments, as a group they were not readily accepted as equals
by the white community. According to Meyer, "Although there
seemed to be close friendships on an individual level, feelings
about the growth of a black community may have been more ambivalent."
(16) To substantiate her argument, Meyer writes as follows:
A case in point are the war letters of B.F.
Reed, who was from Brushy Fork. In an 1863 letter to a farmer of
that area, he writes, "I will close, my respects to all, especially
my old friend, Lewis James." (One of the black farmers) However,
two months later he writes, "I learn the sable sons of Africa
on Brushy Fork have gone to Boston to enlist in the Federal Army.
Bully for them, may they never return." His sentiments may
have echoed those of many of the area farmers who came from Kentucky
respecting men as individuals and yet "having no conscientious
scruples on the slavery question. (17)
The supposed inferiority of African Americans could
not be erased by individual achievement. More importantly, even
though Reed and his like were at this time in Illinois, a non-slave
state, they were still being influenced by their southern heritage
and allegiance. Clearly, the hostility towards Lewis James and his
cohorts had to do with the fact that they chose to enlist in the
Union Army which was determined to destroy slavery and the southern
way of life. It was not in all cases that whites had ambivalent
attitudes towards blacks. There were times when black individuals
were given their due. As one newspaper report stated "Respected
Colored Citizen Is Dead." The full report reads as follows:
Stephen Williams, age 78 years, one of the best
known colored men of Coles County and for years a resident of this
city [Charleston] where he had the respect and confidence of all,
died at 11:20 this morning at the family home, 728 Eleventh Street,
after an illness of several years... Mr. Williams, who was born
in Huntsville, Ala., was a slave in the days before the great Civil
war which gave him his rights and freedom as a human being. At the
conclusion of the war he was brought to Charleston by the late Captain
T.T. Tillotson. He was then a lad about 18 years of age and was
in the service of the Tillotson family for some years... In the
many that Williams resided here he has met with many of our people
[whites]. He was well liked by every one, and held the confidence
of all. For years he was seen on the streets of Charleston until
about four years ago, when he contracted a severe eye trouble which
later blinded him for the remainder of his days. (18)
Beyond individual recognition, blacks had to rely
on liberal and sympathetic whites to help them protect their rights.
For example, Ebenezer Noyes' family house on Western Avenue in Mattoon
is cited as a station on the Underground Railroad. Built in the
1850's, local legend has it that "One of his great-granddaughters,
Catherine Hughes Turner, recalls a story of the Noyes' family helping
a slave escape. When men came looking for escaped slaves, the family
dressed a slave they were hiding in the Noyes family's clothing.
They put her to work in the garden and she went undetected."