Sarah Cato’s grandfather, Ruges Freeman, used to talk about her black ancestors coming to the Illinois Territory in 1818, but the St. Louis woman didn’t get the full story until recently.
She was stunned to learn that her great-great-grandfather, Richmond Freeman, was not a slave trying to escape, but a free black man making the long journey from Virginia to St. Clair County on the back of a wagon with a group of pioneers.
“I think he came chasing a girl,” Sarah said, noting that Richmond later married Mary Graham, whom he likely met in Maryland or Virginia before the trip.
Sarah also got more information about a small settlement of free blacks at Turkey Hill, between Belleville and Freeburg, where the Freemans lived. It was protected by white families, some headed by ministers opposed to slavery.
Richmond and Mary were able to buy farmland, build a home, raise livestock, attend church, rear 14 children and establish an “African school.” Eventually, Richmond accumulated 320 acres.
“They lived a good life,” said Mera Hertel, 45, of Belleville, a local historian who also has done research on the settlement. “They wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere else.”
Slavery wasn’t abolished in the United States until after the Civil War in 1865. Illinois joined the union as a “free” state in 1818, but laws allowed slavery and indentured servitude to continue under a wide range of circumstances.
Throughout the country, free blacks were susceptible to being kidnapped and sold into slavery or losing their freedom by violating “black codes” and other regulations.
“You had to have papers proving you were free,” Sarah said. “You had to carry them on your person at all times, subject to challenge and surrender of those papers for examination by any white person who demanded them. That could be a drunk or a child.
“You couldn’t sell liquor. You couldn’t own a dog. You couldn’t own a gun. You couldn’t participate in a militia. You couldn’t serve on a jury or testify against a white person.”
Sarah, 59, is a retired attorney. She returned to school and earned a master’s degree in American culture studies at Washington University in 2013. Her thesis examined the lives of free blacks in the 1800s, using the Freemans as a case study.
But researching black family trees is a challenging process. Slaves were considered property, not human beings, so records are scarce. It was illegal for blacks to learn to read or write in most places.
Records that do exist often refer to slaves only by their first names, first names paired with last names of their white masters, African names or nicknames.
“Some enslavers thought it was comical to give their slaves classical names, so you’d have a woman named Cassiopeia or a man named Julius Caesar,” Sarah said. “But that wasn’t what they were called at home. That wasn’t what their parents named them.”
Historians in Botetourt County, Va., helped Sarah find Richmond’s parents, Abram (or Abraham) and Judea (or Juda) in early 1800s registries of free Negroes. Abram was identified as a laborer on the farm of Edward Mitchell.
Edward and his brother, Samuel, were among the pioneers who traveled to St. Clair County with Richmond in 1818. The caravan included an estimated 60 people in several families.
“They left because of slavery,” Sarah said. “Edward and Samuel were Methodist ministers. They didn’t believe in slavery.”
Sarah also found handwritten indenture papers, showing that Richmond indentured himself to Edward for six months after arriving in Illinois, signing with an “X.” It may have been a way for him to borrow money in exchange for labor.
Sarah met Mera at a black genealogical conference in St. Louis while working on her thesis.
Mera already had done research on the Freemans. She had Mary’s 1874 obituary from the Belleville Weekly Advocate, reporting her death at 73 after a series of strokes.
“The thing that stands out in my mind is that Mary Graham Freeman walked all the way from Maryland barefoot, and that was the year without a summer,” Mera said. “A lot of people didn’t make it, but she did.”
Mera was referring to 1816, when North America experienced dramatic temperature swings and frost all summer in places. It was part of worldwide climate abnormalities, blamed on a volcano eruption in Southeast Asia the year before.
Mary came to St. Clair County with a friend of the Mitchells named Lloyd Belt. She was indentured to him, probably in exchange for room and board, until she wed Richmond on Dec. 23, 1819. Edward performed the ceremony, according to their handwritten marriage certificate.
“It was unusual for ministers to marry slaves or ex-slaves back then,” Mera said. “Typically, they just jumped over a broomstick and said, ‘We’re man and wife.’”
Mera is an employee of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. She learned about the free black settlement at Turkey Hill about 10 years ago from the late Harold Miller, a farmer who knew the location of its old cemetery and African school.
Mera and local genealogist Judy Jennings walked the property, next to Julius J. Knobeloch Woods Nature Preserve, near Dunlap and Rentschler roads.
There were no tombstones, only boulders, daffodils and yucca plants, which were typical grave markers in early black cemeteries.
“Slaves would often bring yucca seeds with them on their journey from the South and even the Indies,” Mera wrote in her report. “For the enslaved, it was something that could have been easily smuggled and ‘owned,’ in affront to their bondage, as they were not allowed to own property of any kind.”
Will Shannon, curator for the St. Clair County Historical Society, also knew about the settlement. It came up when he was studying Napoleon Hawes, who moved to Turkey Hill as a child with his white father and mixed-race mother in the 1850s.
Mary tutored Napoleon at the African school. As an adult, he became an industrial worker and union activist.
“Being a mixed-race individual in the decades after the Civil War, Napoleon Hawes likely faced discrimination in almost every facet of his life,” Will wrote in a newsletter article.
Sarah is finished with her thesis, but she plans to keep researching the Freemans. Her most pressing question now is whether great-great-great-grandfather Abram was ever a slave and, if so, how he earned his freedom.
Sarah suspects Edward and Samuel Mitchell’s father freed him, possibly for accompanying them into battle during the Revolutionary War and acting heroically, which would have been an acceptable reason for manumission in those days.
“Trust and believe, if I find out it was because he served in the Revolutionary War, my next step will be the Daughters of the American Revolution,” she said.