By Stanley Campbell
In honor of Black History Month, I’ll retell the heroic tale of a Belvidere abolitionist of African descent who recruited and enlisted for the all-white 95th Illinois Regiment in the 1860s.
Rockford was a hotbed of abolitionist (abolish slavery) activity in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. While the rest of Illinois was throwing abolitionist printing presses into the Mississippi, Rockford hosted anti-slavery speakers, filling its churches and public halls.
Back in those days, the main form of entertainment, besides guzzling whiskey, was listening to public speeches. When the two were mixed, it led to some great performances.
Rockford hosted a dignified stage, and when the greatest abolitionist of all time, Frederick Douglass, came through, it drew the largest crowds. He quickly put this town on his regular itinerary.
Douglass, the first African-American popular orator and activist, was well received in Rockford, but there’s not much information as to where he stayed, who hosted him, or what he said. His legacy proved resilient. At the end of the Civil War, Rockford invited freed slaves to live here as free people. There weren’t many cities that opened their doors, but our community did.
A fellow abolitionist speaker, H. Ford Douglas (perhaps using a pseudonym because he was an escaped slave) raised the hearts and ideals of northwest Illinoisans to fight against slavery and for the Union. He himself enlisted, not as an officer, which he could have done (the locals loved him that much), but as a lowly private.
So, Mr. Douglas was of African descent and overcame the racism of his time to become a hero and leader of men. He is featured in the book African-Amercans in Early Rockford, written by local historian John Molyneaux. Pick up a copy at the main library bookshop.
I not only enjoyed the book, but followed up with a trip to the African-American Civil War Museum and Memorial in Washington, D.C. I was in the city to lobby for peace in the Middle East (yes, I know, but ya gotta try) and found myself at “U Street & 14th” where the Metro station practically dumped me in front of the memorial: a beautiful bronze life-size presentation of six black soldiers, complete with rifles. I then went into the little museum (more like a closet when compared to the Smithsonian) where I met Assistant Director Hari Jones.
I asked Mr. Jones about this tale of a Belvidere, Ill., freedman who not only raised recruits, but also enlisted in a white Army unit himself. “Oh, yes, Hezekiah Ford Douglas,” was his response. I was floored! “There were over 1,000 instances of men of African descent enlisting and being accepted into the Union Army before the formation of the Black Regiments,” he said. “Some were made officers!”
After a few clicks on his computer, Mr. Jones brought up Douglas’ record (but now spelled Douglass), and it showed that H. Ford Douglass had enlisted for three years into Company G, 95th Illinois Infantry, from his hometown of Belvidere, Ill., at age 30, leaving a wife. The 95th fought in Tennessee and Louisiana, where he recruited a black regiment. He was promoted to captain in this “independent company” attached to the 8th Louisiana Lt. Artillery. He was discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, July 1865.
Here is a local African-American hero who came from Belvidere, spoke out against slavery, recruited locals into the Army and then enlisted and went South with the troops.
That is a true history of our area that few know about. That is a good reason to celebrate Black History Month. Mr. Douglass will be one of my “Rockford Radicals” I’ll talk about Sunday, March 21, at the Rockford Historical Society’s annual dinner.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the Feb. 24-Mar. 2, 2010 issue