More than 150 years ago, 110 formerly enslaved people rode in boxcars for 570 miles from a small city in northern Mississippi to Elgin — forever changing what at the time was a small pioneer town of 2,800 people. And that previously little-discussed history is beginning to be acknowledged.
The 110 people were what was known during the Civil War as “contraband of war” — formerly enslaved people who sought refuge in Union camps. Abolitionists fed and housed the refugees upon their arrival on Oct. 15, 1862, more than 18 months after the start of the Civil War.
The new arrivals, mostly children, founded an area of Elgin that later became known as The Settlement, according to Ernie Broadnax, executive producer of the 2015 documentary Project 2-3-1. Broadnax, 85, is a lifelong resident of Elgin.
In the immediate weeks after their arrival, the refugees lived in 15 Elgin homes, according to the documentary.
Seven of the Black refugees were housed temporarily at the limestone Wilcox House at 52 Crighton Ave. It is one of just two documented houses still standing in Elgin where members of the 110 are known to have lived. (There are a few others from the period standing where they may have lived or worked.) The second is the Wing Mansion, where Broadnax’s great-great-grandmother, Ann Bosley — one of the 110 who made the harrowing journey in the boxcars — lived and worked as an adult. The ornate Queen Anne Victorian, located at 972 W. Highland Ave., was built in 1891.
The formerly enslaved people eventually built their own neighborhood, The Settlement, on land east of the Fox River in what’s now the 400 blocks of Ann Street, Hickory Place and Fremont Street.
The Settlement, which was one of the first for- and by- Black people in Illinois, grew to an estimated 245 families by 1880. Many of the original homes in the Settlement were built by Arthur Newsome and are now gone. Newsome’s wife and daughter were among the first Black arrivals, and Newsome joined them six months later in Elgin. Newsome was largely regarded as the leader of the Black community there for 50 years, and was a trustee of the Second Baptist Church, which still serves the community today.
“Two kinds of bravery”
During the Civil War, as Union soldiers moved further into southern states, thousands of Black people sought refuge and freedom in the Union camps. But when the camps became overwhelmed by the need, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued an order to send some of the refugees north.
Soldier John Wilcox — whose brother would later host some of the freedom seekers — wrote to his pastor back in Elgin, the Rev. A. J. Joslyn of the First Baptist Church, to bring some of the freedom seekers to Elgin. At the time, Elgin was a hotbed for anti-slavery activism, dating to its founding in the 1830s. Joslyn wrote back: “We are willing to do anything if we may be instrumental in tearing down the odious temple of oppression.”
The group of war refugees were invited to come live in Elgin — even though Illinois at the time had a set of racist laws called the Black Codes that were designed to hinder free Black people from coming to the state and enslaved Black people from finding freedom. A group of Illinois legislators even pushed for Stanton’s order to exempt Illinois.
But in spite of the laws, the refugees courageously made the trek north. A group of white abolitionists fed and housed them on their arrival.
“There were two kinds of bravery,” Broadnax said. “The bravery it took to come up here from slavery, and the bravery of the people in Elgin who said, ‘Yes, send them to us.’ ”
Not everyone in Elgin welcomed the people seeking freedom and the Settlement. Divisions were inflamed by the deaths of about 40 children, both Black and white, from smallpox, which may have been brought from the Union camps. Prejudice got so bad, a local newspaper wrote an editorial pleading with the white people of Elgin to stop mistreating the Black citizens, according to Project 2-3-1.
Still, the descendants of those 1862 arrivals have continued to shape Elgin for more than 150 years. As Broadnax said: “[The Contrabands] began the community that’s still here today.”
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Mary Hall produced the web version of this story. Follow her @hall_marye.