Illinois —Teachable Moments —Illinois Coal Mines and Slavery
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?
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.