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From Slave to State Legislator

From Slave to State Legislator

John W. E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker

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David A. Joens


E-book (Other formats: Hardcover)
23 illustrations


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About the Book

Illinois State Historical Society Superior Achievement Award, 2013

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.


David A. Joens is the director of the Illinois State Archives and the author of numerous articles on Illinois political history.


"From Slave to State Legislator goes beyond filling a basic hole in the historiography of Northern black politics and would benefit any student of ethnographic political history." —Donovan Weight, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"From Slave to State Legislator: John W.E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker is a full-length biography of a man who took the American Dream to virtually unprecedented heights. Beginning as a slave owned by a doctor's family in Alabama, John W.E. Thomas (1847?-1899) became a wealthy and well-known attorney committed to improving the lives of those in his community. He played a key role in the passage of Illinois' first civil rights act, yet his legacy has been sadly neglected by history. From Slave to State Legislator remedies this with a carefully researched, in-depth account accessible to scholars and lay readers alike. An excellent choice for public, high school, and college library biography collections, From Slave to State Legislator is ultimately the inspirational true story of the life of an incredibly extraordinary American." —James A. Cox, The Midwest Book Review

“David A. Joens' From Slave to State Legislator: John W. E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker represents a pioneering work in American and African American political history in that it examines for the first time the formation of a black northern, post-Reconstruction political tradition. Joining and moving beyond earlier twentieth century efforts by Leslie Fishel and Martin Kilson to explore the world of blacks in modern competitive politics, From Slave to State Legislator will now serve as a paradigm of what blacks hoped could be accomplished and what they did achieve through electoral, legislative and organizational politics. From the emergence of this tradition, the South Side independent political machine of Edward Wright and Oscar De Priest emerged during the 1920s, and subsequently, the base upon which the Obama political experience was built.”—Christopher Robert Reed,  author of Black Chicago's First Century, 1833-1900, and The Rise of Black Professional Leadership, 1910-1960