Africa, IllinoisBy CHLOE McNEILL
CARBONDALE (March 1947) Among the immigrants who came from Kentucky in 1816, to settle in the Illinois Country, was John McCreery. He brought with him a number of slaves, valued at ten thousand dollars and made his home in what later became Franklin County.
Shortly after settling there, he transferred four of the slaves to his son, Robert. A deed was made for the transfer in 1816, but it was destroyed by fire a few years later. A duplicate copy was worked out, and recorded in the circuit clerk's office at Benton, on March 9, 1847.
Allen McCreery, Robert's brother, secretly took the four slaves to Missouri, where he joined another man. The intention was to sell the slaves down South. Robert found out about the plan, and with another brother, Alexander, followed Allen and recovered the slaves. Brought back to Illinois they were freed.
Robert McCreery bought land from the government at twelve and one-half cents an acre, in what was then the southeast corner of Franklin County. On this land, Robert McCreery built homes for the Negroes, and started "Africa". In 1839, the county was divided, and Williamson County established from the southern half of Franklin County. This put "Africa" in Williamson County.
In 1818, when Illinois Territory became the State of Illinois, there was much opposition to slavery: so much, that slavery was barred from the new state by the Constitution. John McCreery decided to take his slaves to Missouri, then a slave sate. In 1821, he died. His widow inherited the slaves and they remained her property until her death in 1844.
Alexander McCreery, one of her sons, then inherited the slaves. A resident of Illinois, he went to Missouri to take possession. Upon arrival, he learned that all but one had been kidnapped and hidden in the woods. Their captors were keeping them hidden and watching the road for a chance to run them out of the country and sell them in the South.
With the help of friends, McCreery found his slaves, and brought them back from the woods. He found that one of the woman was married to Richard Inge, a slave who belonged to a neighbor. Not wanting to separate man and wife, Alexander McCreery purchased Inge for three hundred dollars, and brought him along with the others to Illinois.
Upon their arrival in Williamson County, McCreery gave all of them their freedom. They settled in "Africa," where he provided them with land from which to make their living.
In time, the Negroes who were living in Africa." Decided to build a church of their own. Before this they had attended church at Liberty, a Methodist Church three miles southeast of Thompsonville. They named their new church Locust Grove and affiliated with the Southern Methodist organization.
Later, these inhabitants of "Africa" built a small schoolhouse, and employed white teachers to instruct their children. Walter Kent and Miss Annie Simmons were among the white teachers who taught in the school. In later years, Negro teachers were employed, two of whom were William Harrison and John Patton. A lack of funds caused the discontinuance of the school in 1908. The district then was split up and combined with surrounding districts. Now the children go to school with their white neighbors. Later, funds were raised and the district indebtedness was paid, but the Negro school never has been re-established.
One of the freed slaves, Richard Inge, was a shoemaker. He went to Old Frankfort, nearby, and "hired himself" to Ralph Elstum. His shoes were made by hand, of course, and wooden pegs used. The customer stood on a piece of leather, and Inge marked around his feet to get the size.
Inge was industrious and a good workman. When he had saved enough money, he repaid McCreery for the sum spent to buy his freedom from his Missouri owner. Later, he saved enough to buy eighty acres of land near the Negro settlement.
A woman from Indiana with a small son came to "Africa." Unable to support the boy, she gave him to Inge and his wife, who raised him. Jimmy Hargraves, this boy, still lives in "Africa." He does not know his exact age, but believes he is more than ninety years old.
Hargraves proved to his foster parents that he appreciated all that they did for him. A good workers, he took care of them as long as they lived. He was a good cook, serving as camp cook for the railroad construction crews that built the road from Benton to Thompsonville. For twenty-five years he was a chef in a large Chicago hotel. Many wedding cakes and special dinners were prepared by him for the white residents of the communities around "Africa."
Just prior to the Civil War, feeling ran high, and some Southern sympathizers warned the Negroes of "Africa" to leave their homes. Frightened, three wagon loads of them, with most of their family possessions, started up the old Sarahsville road, past Liberty Church, on their way out of the region.
It was Sunday morning, and the church members gathered for Sunday School found out what was taking place. They persuaded the Negroes to return to their homes, promising that they would not be molested. The Negroes turned back, and the Southern sympathizers were not heard from again.
These Negroes of "Africa" never have been a detriment to the communities around them. They have been self-supporting and have attended to their own affairs. Some have taken advantage of all the opportunities that have come their way. In recent years, several have finished high school, and a few have attended college. Miss Ary Dimple Bean completed her high school work at Marion, and was graduated, in 1924, from a two-year college course at Southern Illinois Normal University.
The settlement is not as large as it once was, but at the present time it covers 540 acres, with about forty persons living thereon. In all the years of its existence there never has been a town, the inhabitants being almost universally farmers. Their economic status is now, and always has been up to the level of white citizens. Jerry Bean is the most progressive farmer in the settlement at this time.
Webmaster's Note: It's been pointed out by a descendant of the McCreerys that some of the facts in this article doesn't match the official records. That in itself isn't surprising. Chloe wrote from the oral traditions and possibly some of the early county histories, which themselves were often based on family tales. Because the McCreery family settled in this area when it was still Gallatin County, and possibly even before that county existed according to at least one source, pinpointing their arrival along with the arrival of their slaves is almost impossible. One mistake that has been pointed out that can be confirmed is the deed of sale involving Robert in 1816. According to Scott K. Williams, a descendant who has checked the records, the year is 1815 and Robert is deeding the three slaves back to his father John, just reverse of what is recalled.
There is much more to this story, and as of June 2004, I am trying to figure it all out for a chapter in my upcoming book on the Old Slave House titled Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw.
For more on kidnappings in Southern Illinois' history check out the Reverse Underground Railroad page and the information on the Old Slave House.
Created April 26, 1998 by Jon Musgrave. Updated June 29, 2004