"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."
Frederick Douglass, 1852
Every Fourth of July since 1778, Kaskaskia residents have rung the "Liberty Bell of the West" in celebration of America's Declaration of Independence. The bell rang to commemorate liberty in a territory, and later a state, that enslaved African Americans. It rang over an Illinois plagued by racism, segregation and violence. While it rang, though, African American residents of Illinois fought for their freedom, never giving up on their quest for equality.
Their journey was a long one. The struggle to end slavery in Illinois, from its introduction by the French in 1719 to its official abolition with the 13th Amendment in 1865, took nearly 150 years. And the struggle wasn't over even then. Through the tumultuous years after the Civil War, black residents of Illinois continued to face discrimination, racial violence and segregation.
But a sense of expanding possibility – that proposition that all are created equal – drove African Americans to create opportunity, stability, success and even greatness. It prompted them to form schools, establish clubs, build churches, pursue professions, organize unions, mobilize politically, prosper economically and protest effectively.
"I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."
Abraham Lincoln, 1861
Church of the Immaculate Conception, Kaskaskia
French missionaries established a mission at Kaskaskia in 1703, naming the village after the Illini word for the Kaskaskia River. Their goal was to convert the local Native Americans to Catholicism. The stone Church of the Immaculate Conception was built there in 1714 to accommodate a growing population of French traders and settlers.
Historians believe the Jesuits – priests of the Society of Jesus – at Kaskaskia owned the first slaves in early Illinois. The Jesuits, with their wealth and powerful political connections, were in a position to buy slaves and have them shipped up the Mississippi River to the growing village. By 1720, the Jesuits owned sixteen to eighteen slaves, both African and Native American, making them the single largest owner of slaves in the Illinois Country at that time.
Flooding destroyed the original church, but it was rebuilt in 1893 and still stands today.
Church of the Immaculate Conception
6450 Klein Lane
Kaskaskia, IL 63673
Fax: (618) 826-2667
Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial, Kaskaskia
French-Canadian fur traders and missionaries established the first settlements in Illinois at Cahokia (1699) and Kaskaskia (1703). What is today Illinois – known then as the Illinois Country – was part of the French colony in North America.
In 1741, King Louis XV of France ordered that a bell be cast and sent as a gift to the church of the Illinois country. The 650-pound bell was shipped to New Orleans, then pulled up the Mississippi River to be housed in the bell tower of the old stone Church of the Immaculate Conception in Kaskaskia. It took two years for the bell to make its journey.
When the American George Rogers Clark defeated the British at Kaskaskia in 1778, the Kaskaskia residents, now including many Americans, cheered. Running to the church, they rang the bell in celebration of the end of British rule. From that day forward, the bell has been known as the “Liberty Bell of the West.” It is still rung annually on the Fourth of July as a symbol of freedom and liberation.
Today, the bell is housed in the Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial, a brick building that also contains murals depicting scenes from Kaskaskia history.
Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site
4372 Park Road
Ellis Gove, IL 62241
Site of John Jones Tailor Shop
John Jones's tailor shop at 119 South Dearborn St. was Chicago's main stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped transport runaway slaves
from the South to the North or to Canada.
John Jones was an outspoken civil rights activist whose pamphlet, The Black Laws of Illinois and a Few Reasons Why They Should Be Repealed,
proved instrumental in overturning Illinois’ harsh Black Codes. Jones' home also served as a meeting place for local and national
abolitionist leaders, including Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Allan Pinkerton. A historic marker notes the location.
Location of John Jones Tailor Shop
119 South Dearborn St. (Dearborn at Madison)
“African Americans in Illinois,” Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
“Generations of Pride: African American Timeline,” Illinois Department of Natural Resources
“John Jones,” Chicago Tribute: Markers of Distinction, Chicago Tribune Foundation
“African American Life in the 19th Century,” Chicago History Museum
“Kaskaskia: First Capital of Illinois,” Chicago Tribune [video]
“Kaskaskia Journal: Living in the American Atlantis,” New York Times
“Slavery in Illinois: Culture vs. Law,” Illinois History Teacher
“Slavery in Illinois: A window opens on dark chapter in early state history” Illinois Heritage,
“Understanding the Illinois Constitution,” Illinois State Bar Association