A Bad Start

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"Children born from marriages between slaves shall be slaves, and if the husband and wife have different masters, they shall belong to the masters of the female slave, not to the master of her husband." Code Noir, 1685

The first black slaves in the Illinois Country were transported from New Orleans. Slaves in early Illinois were governed by the Code Noir, or Black Code, a law created by France in 1685 that defined slaves as personal property that could be bought and sold just like any other possession. By 1725, 24 percent of Illinois residents were black — most of them, presumably, slaves. The 1752 census found slaves in Kaskaskia and Cahokia, among other places.

The French slave influence in Illinois is demonstrated by Pierre Menard, a French-Canadian who arrived in Kaskaskia in 1790. A trader and merchant, Menard was elected Illinois' first lieutenant-governor in 1818. He also was one of the largest slaveholders in the state and was listed as owning 18 slaves in 1830. Those slaves worked as farm laborers, oarsmen and domestic servants in Menard's French Creole-style home just across the Mississippi River from Kaskaskia.

One of Menard's slaves was named Marie. We do not know when he acquired Marie, but we do know that she baptized her son Michel in 1799, and church records list Menard as her owner. Marie had at least four more children: Jean Baptiste in 1803, Agathe in 1805, Clarie in 1808 and Antoine in 1810. The children all automatically became slaves of Pierre Menard. For the price he paid for one female slave (valued as highly as a male in slave-scarce Illinois), Menard gained five more servants.

The Code Noir, which restricted the rights of free African Americans as well as slaves, was expanded by the Illinois legislature in 1819, 1829 and again in 1833.

"You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own." Abraham Lincoln, July 1, 1854

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