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African American History Runs Deep in Alton

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Located just 25 miles north of St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city of Alton, Illinois, and the surrounding villages of Hartford, Wood River, Grafton, Elsah and Godfrey offer a wealth of African American history that helped shape the region, state and the country as a whole. 

It is believed that the first African Americans here were brought by the French in the late 1700s to work the salt and gem mines.  In later years during and after the Civil War, both Missouri and Illinois figured prominently in the Underground Railroad movement that moved through here from the South up into Canada.

The village of Godfrey became a pivotal place for the survival of escaped slaves. Once slaves crossed the Mississippi River, the reached an opening in the massive limestone bluffs known as Hop Hollow, which became a natural portal for the slaves to move through and make a one-mile trek north to Rocky Fork.  Rocky Fork became a settlement many of the slaves who found and became allies with the Native Americans who had been banished here after the Civil War. They lived together here in outlier camps that were close to, but outside of civilization, in order to be near to family and friends.

Among those early Europeans were several businessmen who were opposed to slavery and used their reputations and connections to help slaves by buying land for them, providing for their basic needs and transporting them out of the area if desired. In 1865, Illinois lifted the Black Laws, which allowed African Americans to begin establishing their own settlements and entities.

One of those entities is New Bethel Rocky Fork AME Church, regarded by some as the oldest and largest Underground Railroad site in the state of Illinois. Founded by freed slaves, the church has survived racially motivated destruction by fire twice and still stands today as an active pillar in the Rock Fork community. Listed as a National Historic Site, it still today plays an integral role in the history, past and present, of this community.

Most of the other Underground Railroad sites in the area are located in Alton, where approximately 30 percent of the residents are African American.

The now privately owned Enos Apartments are named after Dr. Enos who once had a sanatorium here. In the basement of the building are a series of now closed off Underground Railroad tunnels which led not only into the building but also to other areas of town. In the open gathering room here, abolitionists met, fed, clothed and provided travel instructions for the slaves once they made it across the river.

The Hamilton School, an integrated school founded by Dr. Silas Hamilton, is named after a white man who adopted a black boy, naming him George Washington. Washington would later provide an endowment to build a monument to his father, and that monument is believed to be the first one in the country built as a tribute to a white person by a black person.


Now an apartment building, what the locals call The Old Stone House is where famous abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy established the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. Inside, secret passageways led to one of the fireplace mantels where slaves hid until dark then escaped through the parks to safety.

Across the street you will find College Avenue Presbyterian Church (formerly Upper Alton Presbyterian Church) where Lovejoy served as its first pastor (there’s a great deal more about Lovejoy below).

Built in the early 1800s, the Lyman Trumbull House (now a private home and a National Historic Landmark) is named after Senator Lyman Trumbull who resided here from 1849 to 1863. Trumball chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and authored and/or pushed through numerous pieces of legislation relative to race relations in the U.S., including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Elijah P. Lovejoy

To understand the history of slavery in the Alton area back in the day, it is important to know that although Missouri and Illinois were slave states, Illinois became home to numerous slavery sympathizers and abolitionists. Among them was Elijah P. Lovejoy.

Born in 1802, Lovejoy was a schoolteacher that came to neighboring St. Louis at the age of 24. In his mid-30’s he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and founded The St. Louis Observer, a religious newspaper he used as a platform to advocate for the abolition of slavery. Because of his vocal anti-slavery sentiments, and his outreach through the press, which angered throngs of slavery supporters, Lovejoy and his family were forced to flee to Alton, where he continued with his abolitionist activities, including establishing a full-time abolitionist newspaper, The Alton Observer, and founded the aforementioned Illinois Anti-Slavery Society.

Although his life was constantly in danger, his businesses ransacked and burned numerous times, Lovejoy fashioned himself a champion of free speech and the press and refused to relent. Unfortunately, at the age of 35, Lovejoy was murdered by an angry mob. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on and today he is considered by some to be one of the most influential abolitionists of his time.

An impressive monument to Lovejoy towers over the city in the Alton City Cemetery, in full view of the Mississippi River where he, like so many slaves, escaped to freedom. Dedicated in 1897 on the 60th anniversary of his death, the monument–the tallest in Illinois–is a spectacular 93-foot high granite column, on top of which is a 17-foot high winged statue of Victory. Bronze eagles mounted on two, 30-foot high granite sentinel columns flank the middle tower, together watching over the city and Lovejoy’s soul in its final resting place just a few feet away in his grave.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln also played a significant role in the history of Alton. Visitors can learn a great deal about him along the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail. The trail encompasses numerous Lincoln and Civil War historic sites and attractions including Lincoln-Douglas Square, the National Cemetery & Franklin House, Alton Prison, the Lovejoy Monument, Confederate Monument, Trumbull House, Ryder Building, Lincoln-Shields Duel and Small Pox Island.

Lincoln Douglas Square in the center of downtown is home to impressive bronze statues of Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas. In 1858, the two held their final and most important senatorial debate here.

Alton Federal Prison, built in 1831, was the Illinois’ first state penitentiary. It closed in 1860 but was re-opened two years later as a military prison to house Confederate prisoners. Thousands of inmates lived there in unspeakable harsh conditions and in 1862, a smallpox epidemic wiped out over 2,000 prisoners. Many of the dead were taken across the river to Small Pox Island, a quarantine area where their bodies were burned and buried.

Small Pox Island is also significant in that it is where the Lincoln-Shields Duel took place, a planned sword fight with James Shields, state auditor of Illinois, over a tax issue. The duel ultimately became a “battle” of words, both duo coming to a peaceful agreement and upholding their honor as men of their words.

Check out these other great “All Around Alton” adventures!

All Around Alton Overview

Great River Road History in and around Alton

Eat your Heart Out in Alton!

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