Move Over Michelle and Barack…Here’s America’s FIRST Black ‘Power Couple’

And, just like the Obamas, they were from Chicago

John and Mary Jones, circa 1865 — Chicago Historical Society
Image credit:

Slavery in Illinois

The enslavement of black people in Illinois has a long and complex history. Slavery was first brought to the Midwest by French explorers, namely, La-Salle, Joliet, and Marquette from the mid- to late 1700s.

The Black Codes of Illinois

The Black Codes included, but certainly were not limited to, the following:

  • Black people were barred from suing or testifying against white people;
  • They could not meet in groups of more than three without risk of being jailed or beaten;
  • Black people could not serve in the state militia. Not until the Civil War was there a standing national army and black people were not allowed to join the Union Army against the Confederacy until half way through the Civil War — when it looked like the North might actually lose.
  • Black people could be imprisoned for possessing or bearing arms — even for hunting purposes;
  • Black people were barred from a whole array and entire classes of jobs and professions, and were not allowed to attend any so-called “public” schools;
  • All “free” black people in Illinois were required to obtain and carry on their person at all times a county-issued “Certificate of Freedom” (See below). If caught without their “Free Paper,” they were presumed to be runaway slaves, and could be sold and shipped south “down the (nearby Des Plaines or Mississippi) river” into slavery.
  • Considered as a more merciful alternative to outright enslavement, many free black people who had transgressed some element of The Code, were forced into indentured servitude at the salt mines in southern Illinois. These mines provided significant income for the state.
John and Mary Jones “Certificates of Freedom” (“Free Papers”). Image Credit:

John Jones

John Jones was a prominent Chicago businessman, an outspoken abolitionist, a “community organizer” in today’s parlance, and then a tireless civil and human rights activist in Chicago. He came to local and national fame first as a committed leader in the protracted fight to repeal Illinois’ Black Codes.

John Jones, circa 1865. Image Credit:

Mary Richardson Jones

Mary Jane Richardson Jones was born free in Memphis, Tennessee. There, she met John Jones. Before their marriage, her family moved to Alton, Illinois and John soon followed. They married in 1844.

Mary Richardson Jones, circa 1860. Image Credit:
Dr. Bruce Purnell at his Love More Movement Office in Washington, D.C., holding a portrait of his (clockwise from top) great grandmother, Theodora Purnell; his great great great grandmother, Mary Jones; and his grandfather Lee Purnell ( Image Credit: M Ranganathan — ).

Freelancer since the earth first began cooling. My beat, justice: racial, social, political, economic and cultural. I’m on FB, Twitter, Link,

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