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History Reads Book Club- From Slave to State Legislature: John W. E. Thomas Illinois’ First African American Lawmaker

Tuesday, November 2
Starts at 7:00 PM

McLean County Museum of History
200 N. Main St, Bloomington IL 61701

History Reads Book Club- From Slave to State Legislature: John W. E. Thomas Illinois’ First African American Lawmaker

All avid readers are welcome to join the Museum and Bloomington Public Library on Tuesday, November 2 at 7:00 p.m. for the final installment of the History Reads Book Club for 2021. We will meet online via Zoom to discuss From Slave to State Legislature: John W. E. Thomas Illinois’ First African American Lawmaker by David Joens. Visit bit.ly/historyreads110221 to register for this free, online discussion.

As the first African American elected to the Illinois general assembly, John W. E. Thomas was the recognized leader of the state’s African American community for nearly twenty years and laid the groundwork for the success of future black leaders in Chicago politics. Despite his key role in the passage of Illinois’ first civil rights act and his commitment to improving his community against steep personal and political barriers, Thomas’s life and career have been long forgotten by historians and the public alike. This fascinating full-length biography—the first to address the full influence of Thomas or any black politician from Illinois during the Reconstruction Era—is also a pioneering effort to explain the dynamics of African American politics and divisions within the black community in post–Civil War Chicago.

In From Slave to State Legislator, David A. Joens traces Thomas’s trajectory from a slave owned by a doctor’s family in Alabama to a prominent attorney believed to be the wealthiest African American man in Chicago at the time of his death in 1899. Providing one of the few comprehensive looks at African Americans in Chicago during this period, Joens reveals how Thomas’s career represents both the opportunities available to African Americans in the postwar period and the limits still placed on them. When Thomas moved to Chicago in 1869, he started a grocery store, invested in real estate, and founded the first private school for African Americans before becoming involved in politics.

Joens cements Thomas’s legacy as a committed and conscientious lawmaker amid political and personal struggles. In revealing the complicated rivalries and competing ambitions that shaped black northern politics during the Reconstruction Era, Joens shows the long-term impact of Thomas’s friendship with other burgeoning African American political stars and his work to get more black representatives elected. The volume is enhanced by short biographies of other key Chicago African American politicians of the era.

To request a copy of the book, please contact the Reference Desk at Bloomington Public library at 309-828-6093 or email reference@bloomingtonlibrary.org.