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Illinois' Teachable Moment: The True Cost of Coal, Slavery and Historical Markers

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As another coal train derailed in southern Illinois last weekend, the Illinois State Historical Society teamed up with the Illinois Coal Association on Saturday for their own collision with history during the installation of a historical marker for the state's "First Coal Mine."

The real train wreck: Among numerous errors, the Illinois State Historical Society marker fails to mention that other coal mines abounded in southern Illinois, thanks to enslaved African American labor -- including the so-called "first coal mine" -- while the Illinois Coal Association took the occasion to erroneously bash "environmental regulations" for mining job losses, as the Prairie State plunges head-long into a new coal rush and a reckless environmental and health disaster.

What gives, Illinois State Historical Society? Doesn't history matter -- at least over the hackneyed phrases of the Big Coal lobby, even if they provided most of the funds for the historical marker?

While our nation now recognizes that "Black History Month" emerged from historian Carter Woodson's "six-year apprenticeship" in the West Virginia coal mines, isn't it time for the Illinois State History Society to stop finding excuses in the Land of Lincoln -- and Obama -- and finally come clean on the secret legacy of slavery in our coal mines and salt wells, if only to remind us of cautionary tales for our own times?

Two weeks ago, in fact, the state of Illinois pulled the plug on its coal education website for kids, due to public outrage over inaccuracies and an air-brushed version of the industry's wreckage.

Here's the teachable moment for the Illinois State Historical Society: It's time to recognize that African American coal miners, enslaved and indentured, launched the Illinois coal industry -- including the so-called "first coal mine" in 1810 -- and when the state of Illinois ratified its constitution in 1818, a largely overlooked loophole allowed for legal slavery in the crucial tax-revenue-generating salt works, generated by coal mines, in the out-of-sight Shawnee Forests of southern Illinois.

In essence: Backroom compromises by legislators, due to needs for tax revenues, trumped the inalienable human rights of American citizens. Sound familiar?

Outrageously as it seems, the Illinois historical marker for the notorious salt wells even fails to mention the role of slaves or African Americans, as well.

Illinois, goddam.

When are we going to recognize our African American legacy, as well as the courageous efforts of anti-slavery activists, led by backwoods Baptists near the salt works and coal mines in southern Illinois, to wrest the emancipation-invoking hypocritical state leaders from their profitable connections to salt and coalfield slavery?

Such a connection became clear to me a decade ago, when my family's 150-year-old homestead in the Eagle Creek area of southern Illinois, near the historic salt works and coal mines, was stripmined into oblivion. A fairly large slave cemetery on the edge of our historic property disappeared with it.

When a Chicago Tribune reporter appeared at the home of one of the last remaining residents in 2002, a new chapter in Illinois history was finally revealed. One of the last hold-outs in the area agreed to lease part of his ridge to a coal company, though he first issued a warning.

"All my life I've been told there's a Negro cemetery out there," the old timer told the Tribune reporter. "Them people's got a soul, just like you and me."

Walking with the elderly farmer to the hillside, where a clearing gave way to sandstone blocks and shallow grave depressions, the Tribune reporter hailed it the oldest African American cemetery in Illinois. The graves were attributed to the nearby salt wells and coal mines. But the survey of an archaeological firm hired by the out-of-state coal company, Illinois Fuel, considered the graves a "local legend." The site was deemed ineligible for historic preservation status. Nor had it been registered with the Illinois Comptroller's office under the Cemetery Care Act -- therefore, the coal operators were free to bulldoze the site.

Perhaps because the Tribune article had been picked up newspapers across the country, the coal company decided against the interpretation of the archaeologists and refused to strip mine the hillside.

But the real story did not appear in the Tribune article. Accompanying the reporter, a local writer had asked the farmer about the origins of the black community in Eagle Creek, and their larger burial grounds. The farmer pointed down the hill: "Across from the old Bethel Church," he said, pointing to the same fields that had adjoined my family's and a legendary slave-owning businessman's property in Eagle Creek.

The Illinois Coal Industry Rose on the Backs of Slaves

Thomas Jefferson's Old Dominion dipped into its coal pits a half century before the American Revolution with African-gripped picks and shovels. As early as 1765, ads in the New York Mercury newspaper appeared for coal sales from slave-operated mines in Chesterfield County in Virginia. Still, in 1770, the American colonies relied on and imported thousands of tons of coal from Britain.

By the time retreating Hessian solders in the American Revolution forces noted in their 1780 diaries of their astonishment of black slaves laboring in the trenches of coal pits, our emerging nation's first coal industry was in full swing. When French aristocrat the duke de La Rochefoucauld visited the Dover Pit coal mine near Richmond in 1796, en route to Jefferson's home, slave labor had become a key component in Virginia's coal trade. The Frenchman counted more than 500 black slaves toiling in a single underground mine. The primitive conditions of the mines horrified him. Despite the incredible dangers, including frequent cave-ins, methane gas explosions and fires, and flooding, the slaves had no choice. Anyone who refused to work was whipped. The death toll in these mines was unfathomable.

In the spring of 1838, more than 40 black slaves and their two foremen were buried alive 700 feet below the earth, when an explosion devastated the Black Heath coal pit in Virginia. At the Dover Pits in Virginia in 1837, one visitor noted that slaves literally worked as mules to transport the coal to the main entry. He wrote: "Each man has a chain fastened by straps around his breast, which he hooks to the corve, and thus harnessed, and in a stooping posture, he drags his heavy load over the floor of rock."

In truth, black slaves had arrived in the coal mines in the Illinois Country nearly half a century before their counterparts dug the first pits in Virginia. During the Shawnee period, hundreds of black slaves from the French-controlled Caribbean floated up the Mississippi River and disembarked on the Illinois shores at Fort Chartres in 1722. Sanctioned by the French Crown, mining engineer Phillipe Renault arrived with the ruthless aims of the Company of the Indies to extract as much of the mineral wealth as possible in the new territory.

The anti-slavery clause in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 notwithstanding, by the time famed explorers Lewis and Clark observed blacksmiths and gunsmiths employing coal in their work along the riverbeds in southern Illinois in 1803, slavery had become an entrenched part of the trading economy in the region. Slave-owning settlers simply interpreted the law to be applicable to new immigrants; the French, as well as the pioneering Americans, kept their slaves or servants, and actually paid taxes on them.

In 1803, however, this policy changed in language, but not practice. As part of the Indiana Territory, residents in Illinois could engage in "voluntary" indenture contracts. Voluntary was an illusory term, of course. Residents were allowed to travel across the Ohio River and into slave states, such as Kentucky and Tennessee, return with a slave, who was then offered an indentured contract of typically 30 to 50 years -- many "voluntary" indenture contracts were drawn up to 99 years -- or be sold back into slavery on the other side of the river. Young slaves fared even worse; those under 15 were automatically indentured for 20 years, whereupon they could "voluntarily" indenture themselves for the rest of their lives. In the meantime, the masters were allowed to sell and trade their servants like property; most servants simply lived out the rest of their lives with the inheritors of their contracts.

Despite the laws, the entry and purchasing of slaves continued for decades.

In 1803, a slave-owning Kentucky salt operator earned the first lease from the government to produce 120,000 bushels of salt in the wells near Eagle Creek. He didn't last long. Over the next few years, a series of lessees would take control of the wells, increasing the ranks of slaves. The Illinois Territory adopted the indenture laws of Indiana, which had been updated over the course of six years, when it was established in 1809. The slave owners, in fact, demanded more. No one, more so, than the salt well operators near Eagle Creek.

If anything, history has immortalized the act of slavery in name alone: The Great Salt Spring near Eagle Creek dots historical maps as N----r Well or N----r Furnace. It still remains the Negro Spring today. A second spring, Half Moon Lick, was located closer to the town of Equality. By 1810, an estimated 1,000 black slaves had toiled in the forested area as woodcutters and salt kettle attendants. Some had been temporarily brought over from Kentucky and Tennessee.

On the western side of southern Illinois, an enslaved African American named Peter Boon -- according to most historical references and documents, such as the Jackson County Historical Society's publication, "Jackson County, Illinois: Formation and Early Settlement" -- shoveled and loaded the outcroppings of coal along the south bank of the Big Muddy River in Jackson County, Illinois in 1810. Pushing off toward the Mississippi River in their flatboat, William Boon, a captain in the mounted rangers, and his slave Peter transported the first commercial barge of coal in the heartland.

This is the so-called "first coal mine" that the Illinois State Historical Society marker celebrates.

The slave registers for Jackson County were lost in the historic fire of 1843, but William Boon's presence as a slave owner is noted in subsequent Census data, and virtually every history book recognizes his role as Peter's slave owner. William Boon also purchased a "voluntarily indentured" servant as late as 1822. In 1836, Boon's son Ben took a historic case to the Illinois Supreme Court over the status of inherited children of slaves, including a younger Peter.

As a former lead miner from Kentucky and Missouri, Boon engineered the first commercial slope mine in Illinois. He and his slave embarked on several epic voyages down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where they were paid in European currency for coal and loads of forest and farm products.

Boon's efforts attracted attention. As the first state legislator from southwestern Illinois, he also played a role in shaping the laws that allowed for slave labor to assist his work. He would also set the precedent for the entrepreneurial coal foundations in government office -- effectively, the first coal lobby in cahoots with the statewide government.

But Boon's coal mine was not the first in Illinois. In 1797, Morse's American Gazetteer noted: "On the north-western side of this river (near La Salle) is a coal mine, which extends for half a mile along the middle of its banks."

More importantly, coal mines with the commercially contracted salt works had been operating since 1806, given the rapid deforestation around the salt wells. Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born secretary of the Treasury, had already envisioned the use of coal as part of a national system of roads and canals development. In 1809, he instructed the governor of Illinois to introduce conditions to "effectually prevent the waste of timber, and to encourage the use of coal" at the salt furnaces, to which lessees would pay less rent.

In 1812, however, two developments took place that would accelerate the demand for coal. With the strain of the war with Britain, the federal government altered its original intent of leasing out the salt wells -- to provide cheap salt to as many people as possible. In need of revenue, the government allowed the salt operators to nearly double their rates, resulting in more rent revenues.

Two years later, surveyors found the reservation possessed great quantities of coal, "which may be transmitted to the works by water, or the water may be conveyed by pipes to the coal banks." To accommodate the labor demands of the salt operators, the Illinois territorial government passed a law in 1814 that allowed slaves to be imported from outside the state for one-year contracts.

As William Boon's son Ben noted in his memoir, this also included the salt works near Boon's coal mines.

The legislators declared that the lucrative salt trade "could not be successfully carried on by white laborers." A year earlier, Illinois had also become the only free state or territory to deny the entry of free black immigrants. The Kentucky border, of course, was less than 15 miles away at the riverside. The slaves could literally gather at the river, touch their toes to the water, and be returned to the coal-stoked furnaces within an hour.

To the dismay of emancipationists around the country, Illinois ratified its state constitution in 1818 with two jarring clauses. No slavery or involuntary servitude would be allowed -- though, unlike Indiana's constitution, previously enslaved and indentured servants remained in their same status.

More important, the constitution had one exception: Legal slavery would be allowed "within the tract reserved for the salt works near Shawneetown" until 1825 -- the heart of the salt and coal fields near Eagle Creek. Those same salt works employed the same slaves to dig out the coal for the furnaces.

Even more troubling, of course, was the fact that U.S. Congress accepted this constitution with its slave-owning loophole.

A year later in 1819, the Illinois legislature passed the Black Codes, which called "for whipping lazy blacks or mulattoes who are servants or slaves," and stipulated that "blacks and mulattoes found without certificates of freedom could be arrested, advertised and sold."

In 1824, the eyes of the nation shifted to Illinois, when the salt and coal traders engineered a scheme to call for a new constitutional convention. As George Flower, an English settler in southern Illinois explained, the state was being challenged to take slavery out of the closet and openly recognize and guarantee its role in Illinois' future:

"The lessees of the salines -- Granger [Crenshaw's other name, which had been used on various slave records], and others . . . made a bold stroke to perpetuate their system of servile labor, not by asking for an extension of time for hiring hands to work the saline, but they sought so to change the constitution as to make the whole of Illinois a slave-state."

When Illinois voters turned down the convention vote in the summer of 1824, a sigh of relief was released across the nation and in the American heartland. If Illinois had passed this convention vote, other states like Indiana would have easily followed.

The unsung credit, according to southern Illinois historian Ron Nelson, went to the backwoods Baptists and their "Friends of Humanity" anti-slavery movement, which bravely confronted the slave-owning salt and coal traders in the forests of Eagle Creek.

Stripmining Black History

My ancestors homesteaded in the Eagle Creek valley near the salt works in 1805. It is all gone now -- our 150-year-old home place and farm was stripmined in 1998-99. As part of the so-called reclamation laws, the coal company replanted a type of unmanaged grass, which grew in clumps like weeds. Not a single tree was planted on our ancestral property, in one of the most diverse forests area in the nation.

But not just the land and our family history was stripped from existence. Hundreds of the graves of black slaves from the salt works and earliest coal pits that the old-timers secretly knew about at Eagle Creek were churned into dust; the last voices of the slaves were buried with mining waste. Their silences remain unearthed.

There is not a single historical marker for the role of African American slaves and laborers in these historic areas of Illinois.

In 1865, the Pottsville Miners' Journal declared the coal trade in the Kanawha River Valley of West Virginia had been "cursed and controlled by the slave masters who 'like the dog in the manger' have for fifty years denied it to enterprise, and knew not how to profit for its immense mineral wealth." That curse came to an end in the spring of 1865. When Union forces advanced into Confederate territory in Virginia, slaves climbed out of the coal pits at Dover in total desertion, and fled for Richmond, bringing this ignominious first chapter of the coal industry to an end.

In Illinois, however, the denial of that curse remains.

At least until the Illinois State Historical Society decides to break the silence, and install genuine historical markers of our state's true legacies.

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation Books).

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