This week the Illinois General Assembly approved legislation to create the Illinois Underground Railroad Task Force. This bill was sponsored by 24 legislators from all parts of Illinois and from both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate.
The task force will be charged with connecting existing local projects and new projects to create a cohesive statewide history of the underground railroad in Illinois, while creating new educational and tourism opportunities for the state.
That work has already begun in Springfield through the Sangamon County Historical Society (SCHS) and in Tazewell County through the work of John C. Ackerman, Recorder of Deeds. Ackerman contacted his fourth cousin (this writer) to say that a man who was a conductor on the underground railroad in Tremont, Illinois, had lived and died in Springfield. He is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
In keeping with the work begun in Tazewell County, the SCHS will hold a ceremony May 16 at Oak Ridge Cemetery, honoring John Albert Jones and placing a commemorative marker at his grave. Tazewell County has placed 22 markers, with six held as public recognition events. The Sangamon County Historical Society board is already discussing future ceremonies for underground railroad conductors who once lived in Springfield. Many underground railroad conductors, both white and Black, are buried at Oak Ridge.
Jones was born in 1806 near Washington, D.C. His father, Edward, the first chief clerk in the U.S. Treasury appointed by Alexander Hamilton in 1790, served for 39 years, from the presidency of George Washington up to the administration of Andrew Jackson. His uncle was Washington's physician.
Jones graduated from Columbia College in 1825, and by 1835 had settled in Pekin where he became the editor of the Pekin Gazette. He moved to Tremont; from 1837-1857 he served as the Tazewell County Circuit Clerk. In this capacity Jones was present at many cases that Lincoln tried, estimated at over 100, including what is believed to be Lincoln's first slavery case, Bailey vs. Cromwell. Lincoln often stayed in his home, sleeping in the room that had a floor hatch that opened to the hidden basement.
In 1861, Jones, now married and with several children, returned to Washington, D.C., where President Lincoln had appointed him to the post of Superintendent of Commercial Statistics.
He became a member of the Union League of America, founded in Pekin in 1862. It was a partly secretive men's group that was formed to promote loyalty to the United States and to support Lincoln. Jones represented the Tazewell County League as part of Lincoln's secret bodyguard when there was the threat of Lincoln's assassination after he was elected to his second term.
In 1866 Jones came back to Illinois when he was appointed by Judge David Davis as the Clerk of the Circuit Court of the United States for Southern Illinois, a position that meant he needed to reside in Springfield. For 20 years he served in that role, living at 1015 S. Sixth Street. In 1888, at the age of 82, he died.
The May 16 ceremony will present music, poetry and information about the many underground railroad routes that existed. Pat Foster will portray Jones.
The program will begin at 5:30 at the Belltower parking area near the Lincoln Tomb. (participants are encouraged to bring a chair). In case of inclement weather, the program will take place at the Springfield African American Historical Museum on Monument Avenue near the entrance to Oak Ridge.
Cinda Ackerman Klickna, a frequent contributor to Illinois Times, is vice president of the Sangamon County Historical Society.