By Kathi Kresol
Isaiah and William Donley were two brothers that moved to Rockford in 1865 with their family. They were born in Palmyra, Missouri and as the newspaper from 1890 stated, “born into bondage”. The family members were slaves prior to the Civil War.
They came to Rockford to begin their new lives. Isaiah was 12 and William was ten years of age. Both would become well known and respected in this city. They were admired for overcoming the obstacles placed before them and giving back to their community.
Isaiah was a man of many talents but was best known for his devotion to the local Rifles Unit. He would travel with the group and assisted them as a “colored attache”. Isaiah worked very hard to support the group and made their travels much easier.
Isaiah was known for his honesty and integrity but it was his kindness and humor that made him so well loved.
Isaiah married Ann Upsher in August of 1874. They had a daughter, Musadora or Musie as she was called. Unfortunately, Ann died in 1880 when Musie was only four years old. Many who knew Isaiah spoke of his devotion to his only child.
Tragedy struck Isaiah’s family again in January 1890 when he became ill. Isaiah died on January 16, leaving 14-year-old Musie to be taken in by his brother William. The men from the Rifles Unit all attended Isaiah’s funeral at Cedar Bluff. They acted as pall bearers and carried their friend to his final resting place.
William married his wife, Mary on November 23, 1882 and they bought a house on Crosby Street a few doors down from where Isaiah lived with his family.
William was even better known than his brother. He was a cigar maker by trade and a very popular one by all accounts. William was also known to be very intelligent and well-read. Many of the immigrants who came to Rockford were illiterate and William would entertain them with tales of the books he read.
William was also a talented guitar and banjo player. He would often tell his friends and family that he loved playing for others and considered it a gift when he saw others enjoying his music.
William and his wife invited Musie into their home after Isaiah died. The churches in Rockford took up collections to help support the little girl. A newspaper article mentioned that Musie later moved to Chicago and married a man named Anderson.
William passed away on February 16, 1916 in the family home on Crosby Street. He was laid to rest near Isaiah in Cedar Bluff Cemetery.
These brothers are usually forgotten about in Rockford’s history. While their contributions may seem small when to compared with other African Americans who helped settle the area, they were part of the foundation that Rockford was built on. The family, like so many others before and after, left behind their past lives and chose Rockford as the place to call home. Their rising above their appalling beginnings is as inspiring now as it was to the community then.