As the first African American elected to the Illinois general assembly, John W. E. Thomas was the recognized leader of the state’s African American community for nearly twenty years and laid the groundwork for the success of future black leaders in Chicago politics. Despite his key role in the passage of Illinois’ first civil rights act and his commitment to improving his community against steep personal and political barriers, Thomas’s life and career have been long forgotten by historians and the public alike. This fascinating full-length biography—the first to address the full influence of Thomas or any black politician from Illinois during the Reconstruction Era—is also a pioneering effort to explain the dynamics of African American politics and divisions within the black community in post–Civil War Chicago. In From Slave to State Legislator, David A. Joens traces Thomas’s trajectory from a slave owned by a doctor’s family in Alabama to a prominent attorney believed to be the wealthiest African American man in Chicago at the time of his death in 1899.
Providing one of the few comprehensive looks at African Americans in Chicago during this period, Joens reveals how Thomas’s career represents both the opportunities available to African Americans in the postwar period and the limits still placed on them. When Thomas moved to Chicago in 1869, he started a grocery store, invested in real estate, and founded the first private school for African Americans before becoming involved in politics. From Slave to State Legislator
provides detailed coverage of Thomas’s three terms in the legislature during the 1870s and 1880s, his multiple failures to be nominated for reelection, and his loyalty to the Republican Party at great political cost, calling attention to the political differences within a black community often considered small and homogenous. Even after achieving his legislative legacy—the passage of the first state civil rights law—Thomas was plagued by patronage issues and an increasingly bitter split with the African American community frustrated with slow progress toward true equality.
Drawing on newspapers and an array of government documents, Joens provides the most thorough review to date of the first civil rights legislation and the two controversial “colored conventions” chaired by Thomas. Joens cements Thomas’s legacy as a committed and conscientious lawmaker amid political and personal struggles. In revealing the complicated rivalries and competing ambitions that shaped black northern politics during the Reconstruction Era, Joens shows the long-term impact of Thomas’s friendship with other burgeoning African American political stars and his work to get more black representatives elected. The volume is enhanced by short biographies of other key Chicago African American politicians of the era.
from the Illinois State Historical Society, 2013