Battling Discriminatory Laws
In her recent book, the historian Martha Jones demonstrates that, even before the Civil War, free Black people laid claim to rights by pointing out they were “birthright” or “natural-born citizens” of the United States. In his 1847 challenge, John Jones used the second term, condemning Article 14 for permitting discrimination against “natural-born citizens of the United States” because of the color of their skin.
John Jones's arguments did not persuade; the new constitution was adopted with Article 14 intact. Through the years, as that provision and the Illinois Black Code remained on the books, Jones continued to challenge them both. In 1853, he participated in a convention of Black men that met in Chicago to condemn state laws that denied Black individuals their rights. When the federal government passed the new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Jones helped draft a report denouncing it as unconstitutional and called on the people of Chicago, particularly the city’s Black community, to actively resist its enforcement. At his urging, three hundred Black men and women, at that point most of the Black population in the city, gathered and voted to oppose the act.
In 1850, Chicago did not yet have a police department, so the meeting also created a private, all-Black vigilance committee to patrol at night looking for “designing individuals,” a singularly nice way of describing slave catchers. Chicago's city government endorsed both resolutions and so did at least some of the city’s white population. In 1853, when a U.S. Marshal seized an unnamed Black man in Chicago, a mob of Chicagoans stopped the arrest and set the captive free.