Even though Illinois was considered a slavery-free state, Lydia Titus had to win her freedom four times while living within the state’s borders.
Even though the Mason Dixon Line placed Illinois into the free states, slaves could still legally be brought into Illinois during the early 1800s. Darrel Dexter, an author, historian and high-school teacher from Cairo, shared stories gleaned from his research of slavery in Illinois on Tuesday at John C. Guyon Auditorium in Morris Library.
Dexter said he spent years working on research for his book, “Bondage in Egypt: Slavery In Southern Illinois.” Within his research, he said, he found there were a lot of stories of people like Titus who had to fight to be free of slavery.
In 1818, he said, there may have been close to 1,200 slaves in Illinois.
While the 24-year-old Titus was not originally a slave, in 1807, she was stopped in Illinois while traveling between Missouri and Kentucky, when she was enslaved.
Dexter said Illinois slave owners had 30 days to bring blacks to the courthouse and make an agreement to servitude.
“If you had that document, the slavery really wasn’t any different,” Dexter said. “You just weren’t technically labeled or called a slave.”
In his research, Dexter said he discovered Titus had told her owner in Missouri that she was “providentially detained” in Illinois because there was ice flowing on the Mississippi River, making it impossible for her to cross. This was a common excuse, Dexter said, because within 30 days, if a slave was indentured in Illinois, they were free.
Titus wasn’t free while she was in Illinois, though. Dexter said he discovered Titus was rented out for slave work in Illinois while her owner was in Missouri, and after one year, she and her family ventured to Missouri. Soon after, her owner died and Titus moved with her owner’s widow to Randolph County, Ill.
Back in Illinois, Titus filed Illinois’ first-ever freedom suit, a legal petition filed in court by slaves seeking freedom, Dexter said. She charged her owner with assault and battery and false imprisonment, and argued for her freedom. After hiring attorney Edward Hempstead, Titus won the case and her first time at freedom. The fines against Titus’ former slave-owner amounted to 25 cents.
“Being a slave for 27 years, she received 25 cents,” he said. “But she got her freedom, and that’s of course more important.”
Titus went on to acquire a job, marry and have children. She and her husband purchased a farm by Caseyville, near abolitionist-populated St. Clair County.
But one neighbor of Titus was a slave owner and notorious kidnapper, Dexter said. Records show the neighbor took Titus to court, claiming he sold a horse to Titus and she did not pay for it. Titus won the case. Soon after, she was kidnapped by her former master’s son, Elijah Mitchell.
Again, Titus filed a freedom suit. The defense attorney for the case was John Reynolds, who would later become governor of Illinois. Yet Titus still won the case.
Mitchell kidnapped Titus and her children and took them to Missouri, where he was told he could win in a case of keeping the family as slaves. Again, Titus won and she was awarded $250.
But Titus was sued for the fine of a lawyer’s fee after the case, and she had to auction a piece of her farm to pay the bill. After that, Dexter said, he hasn’t been able to find what happened to Titus.
Although Dexter said his students have expressed disappointment in not being able to know the end to Titus’ story, he said her life can be looked at for greater meaning, even if the story doesn’t have an ending.
“One thing that personally I learned from Lydia Titus is that you can have your freedom, but somebody can take it away from you, too,” he said. “You have to be willing to stand up and fight when somebody tries to take your freedom.”
Dexter, who said he did much of his research at Morris Library, said his interest in Illinois slavery was prompted during his college years at SIU, when he did a lot of genealogical records and noticed the census records in southern Illinois counties showed slaves.
Joseph Brown, chair of the Black History Month Committee and the Africana Studies Department, said he arranged for Dexter to speak after meeting him through the Illinois Historical Society.
He said people might be able to learn more from the fact that Titus’ story does not have an end.
“There’s so many pieces of this story we will never know,” Brown said. “I think that we all need to understand that, because the ache of not knowing is supposed to drive us to learn more and more.”
The learning experience is what K’Lah Jackson, a sophomore from Chicago studying radio-television, said motivated her to attend Dexter’s lecture. Jackson said although she lives in Illinois, she didn’t know about the history of slavery in the state.
“This is something you don’t get to see every day, you don’t hear every year,” she said. “Learning something new is always good for the future. Even though that’s the past, the past makes up your future.”