The best historians are both artisans and poets. Like weavers of fine tapestries they must have both a command of their craft and a vision. These essays represent both the art and the craft of historical investigation. They are attempts to see the history of our state with new eyes and from a fresh perspective.
For far too long the history of the African-American experience in Illinois had been ignored. A pathbreaking 1963 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, published on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, began the process of redressing that historical injustice, and for the last thirty years major scholarly works have significantly expanded our understanding of the breadth and variety of the black experience. Allan Spear, James Grossman, Thomas Philpott, and Arnold Hirsch helped us rethink the process of black urban adaptation in Chicago, while Juliet E. K. Walker, Roberta Senechal, Willard B. Gatewood, and Elliott Rudwick made important contributions to our understanding of the varieties of experiences that helped shape black life across the state.
Two things stand out. First, we see how extraordinarily varied black lives and experiences were in different places and at different times in our history. Chicagoan John Jones and downstater Free Frank McWorter had more in common than contemporaries Ocsar DePriest and Richard Wright, who lived in the same city but saw the struggles of the Depression era from two entirely different perspectives. The black past only serves to remind us how rich and varied is our common Illinois history.
Second, it is clear how enormous the contributions of African-Americans have been in contouring this common history. From early nineteenth-century debates over the new state constitution to the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery; from the East St. Louis riots through the Great Migration; from Dr. King's Chicago Crusade through Harold Washington's election as mayor; to Gwendolyn Brooks and Michael Jordan, black Illinoisans—their struggles, their culture, and their contributions—have helped shape the history of the state and the lives of its people. The essays presented here are a small but important contribution to our continuing effort to weave together the tangled strand of that common historical legacy.