Oak Park couple capture impact of 19th Century abolitionist

Owen Lovejoy preached race equality from Illinois' pulpits

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By Jane Ann Moore and William F. Moore

Guest authors

We were captured by Owen Lovejoy and his ability to build an effective coalition based on moral imperatives. Our book, Owen Lovejoy and the Coalition of Equality: Clergy, African Americans and Women United for Abolition, was published in December. 

African Americans, activist women and clergy formed a succession of Illinois antislavery political parties under the collaborative leadership of Owen Lovejoy and others — Liberty Party (1846), Free Soil Party (1848), Free Democratic Party (1852), the early Republican Party (1854) and official Republican Party (1858), which lead to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Similar coalitions exist in the Civil Rights movement, in Oak Park and in the Black Lives Matter movement today.

When we began as co-pastors of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeKalb, established in 1854, we found it had an unusual covenant. All members promised "to treat all brothers and sisters in Christ with tenderness regardless of the color of their skin." Where did this covenant come from? Colleagues pointed us to the Rev. Owen Lovejoy of Princeton, Illinois. Lovejoy preached to his Congregational Church that there was a spark of the divine in every person. He also taught that religion and politics should be closely related; one's values should shape public policy. First Congregational Church's covenant then was a repudiation of the nation's great sins of slavery and racism.

Ten years before, in 1846, three political abolitionist groups in northern Illinois formed a coalition to confront slavery, the Fugitive Slave law and Illinois Black laws and to obtain human rights and equality. That May, clergy, Black people and women hosted the North-Western Liberty Convention in Chicago. Six thousand antislavery advocates from Illinois and surrounding states attended the rousing, three-day conclave. The well-known African American orator James Bibb, fugitive enslaved person and son of a Kentucky state senator was the dramatic keynote speaker. Owen Lovejoy, the Fourth Congressional District nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives, followed with rhetorical and leadership skill. 

This coalition included antislavery white ministers and laymen who organized formal church associations and political parties in Illinois; white women who formed antislavery societies that supported political parties; and African American men and women who gathered in congregations, debating societies, sewing circles and organized petitions and campaigns. As radicals, they intended that slavery should be abolished and equality attained. As political abolitionists, they agreed the best way to break the spell of the slave power" was through the constitutional process. 

After the Liberty Party divided, they spearheaded the Illinois branches of the Free Soil, Free Democratic and Republican Parties. John Jones of Chicago led the state's African American group and worked closely with Frederick Douglass at the state and national levels. Mary Brown Davis of Peoria was the prolific journalist for the female societies.

Lovejoy rescued dozens of Black fugitives. Then he helped rescue millions of enslaved people by introducing and pushing national bills. Flanked by the coalition, Lovejoy worked closely with Abraham Lincoln from 1855 until his Presidential victory in 1860. 

In U.S. Congress, from 1859 to 1864, the Hon. Lovejoy chaired three major committees in the House and interjected energy into other progressive bills. During the Civil War, the expanding coalition sustained the original antislavery core of the multifaceted Republican Party, supporting Lincoln against all retrograde naysayers. And slavery ended.

In the 20th century, other equal rights movements emerged. In the 1950s the Civil Rights movement began with Black clergy and their colleagues. Then, radical white clergy and activist white women came on board.

We moved to Oak Park recently to be close to our family. But as early as 1965, we heard from a Yale Divinity School friend, Joyce Beisswanger, that a coalition was forming in the village. African Americans wanted to move into Oak Park but no owner would sell to them. Distressed, Beisswanger and neighbors began meeting on how to make housing available to Black families. 

Religious leaders supported the challenge and Black people volunteered. They created discussion groups, passed leaflets to Lake Street shoppers, interviewed real estate folks and tested sellers' responses. They collaborated to prevent blockbusting and to set the stage for official assurances that property values would be preserved, thus creating a unique racially integrated community. Lee Brooke wrote about this period, 1964-1973, in his 1996 report incorporating Joyce's notes. We are all the beneficiaries of the coalition's vision. 

Today we witness another brilliant coalition. Led by African American women, Black Lives Matter is ascending into a powerful, international force for justice and equality. 

 

"Owen Lovejoy and the Coalition of Equality: Clergy, African Americans and Women United for Abolition" is available from the publisher University of Illinois Press:  press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/53chg8df9780252042300.html. The Moore's have also written "Collaborators for Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and Owen Lovejoy" and edited Owen Lovejoy's "His Brother's Blood, Speeches."

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