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Ceremony honors Tazewell, Woodford County men arrested 175 years ago for harboring runaway slaves

Tazewell County Genealogical and Historical Society
The old Tazewell County Courthouse in Tremont. It served the county from 1839 to 1850, when the county seat was permanently moved to Pekin.

This month 175 years ago, three Tazewell and Woodford county men were indicted on charges alleging harboring of runaway slaves.

Peoria attorney Onslow Peters would represent the Underground Railroad conductors along with Abraham Lincoln, in one of his last remaining cases involving slavery.

Brady Johnson
Tazewell County Clerk and Recorder John Ackerman shows an Underground Railroad marker like

Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman, along with Susan Rynerson of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, hosted a series of five ceremonies honoring county residents who risked their livelihoods to help others escape tyranny.

“We tend to think of history as having to go see it somewhere and we forget about just how much of it we’re blessed with in our own backyard, and I think that’s come out in each of these presentations,” Ackerman said. The county clerk invited Director of the Abraham Lincoln Papers from the Presidential Library Professor Daniel Worthington to give the keynote address.

“In the summer of 1845, the State’s Attorney for the Illinois 8th Judicial Circuit, which Tazewell County and Woodford County were a part of, decided to bring some of the conductors including John Randolph Scott and George Kern to trial for harboring runaway slaves,” Worthington said. “In July 6, 1845, David Campbell, who was the Democrat State’s Attorney, filed an indictment with the Grand Jury at the Woodford County Circuit court alleging that James Kern, who we now know is the son of George Kern, was guilty of conveying away from the county a certain African American known to be an enslaved person who owed his service to someone in the state of Missouri.”

Worthington noted during the time the Tazewell families were indicted, Abraham Lincoln was trying a case in Menard County that dealt with harboring fugitive slaves. Lincoln was able to have charges dismissed after the alleged slave in question was identified as a free man. The director of Lincoln’s papers says the man accused of assisting the free Black man was still tried for harboring, but was found not guilty.

“The irony of the cases in Woodford, which would become Tazewell County, in the indictments there was (sic) no named African Americans who have been alleged to be runaways. No names, no slaves, no masters were named,” Worthington said. “This is designed to attack the ringleaders of the Underground Railroad in this section of Tazewell County and Woodford County. I don’t know that for sure, but it is very odd no one is named. This is normally what happens in most of these cases - there is an owner and a slave named.”

In their separate remarks, Ackerman, Rynerson and Worthington detailed how Lincoln and Peters worked to get the trial moved from Woodford to Tazewell County where a jury of Kern's peers found James and George not guilty on a lack of evidence.

Lincoln used similar arguments that the runaway slave in question was a freed man. Judge Samuels Treat released the brothers without malice.

John Randolph Scott fought his indictment differently, according to Worthington.

“He pleads abatement, which means to put this trail off because he argued that the indictment was wrong,” he said. “The indictment listed him as Randolph Scott, but John said he was known as John and not Randolph Scott and therefore the indictment was wrong.” Worthington says Judge Treat bought the argument and dismissed Scott’s charges. State's Attorney Campbell did not file new charges.

Rynerson noted in her remarks that throughout their year and half research project into these residents the daughter of John Randolph Scott, Emma Scott, kept a detailed diary of her family’s activism.

“Emma names a lot more people than we've been able to cover in our five episodes so far,” Rynerson said. “We know the Scott brothers with other abolitionists formed a rather robust branch of the Underground (Railroad) around Washington. Emma Scott saved her uncle James’ letter dated 1838 where it tells us that they formed an anti-slavery society numbering nearly 100.”

In an interview prior to Sunday’s event at Five Points in Washington, Rynerson highlighted the importance of family ties in the abolition movement.

“One of the fun things is oftentimes the strongest connection to the abolitionist movement are in the wife’s family, you know we can see several daughters, several sisters who are all married to abolitionists,” Rynerson said. “When these men stepped out and engaged in this behavior they were not only putting their own lives and fortunes and property at risk, because they were breaking the law. They were endangering the lives of their families as well.”

Brady Johnson
The Heritage Ensemble performs at an Underground Railroad event at Five Points Washington on Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Sharon Samuels Reed, the founder and artistic director of Heritage Ensemble, ended the ceremony with a short concert including songs sung by those seeking freedom. An estimated 100,000 enslaved persons escaped bondage during the early to mid 19th century, and as Samuels Reed notes, many of them journeyed by themselves with only music assisting their journey.

“History tells us that all of us this music was a part of the Underground Railroad, and so how did the enslaved people know how to get to where they were going. They were told to follow the drinking gourd which was one of the constellations in the sky. The stars were their guide,” Samuels Reed said.

Member Tom Mindock sang Drinking Gourd while playing the guitar, other songs highlighted members Calvin Hightower, Jacqueline Watkins, and Accompanist Gayle Cooper. Songs included Wade into the Water, Steal Away Jesus, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

“All of these songs had such a meaning, yet they were conceived by people who were unable to learn outwardly, all the learning they could do had to be secret,” Samuels Reed said.

Washington Mayor Gary Manier and Pastor Marvin Hightower of the NAACP also spoke during the event.

Worthington says Illinois was not as progressive as other northern states for example they added additional monetary fines to those aiding runaway slaves. A year after Kern and Scott’s case Lincoln would represent a Kentucky slave owner, Robert Matson, trying to reclaim a mother and her four children as property. The Illinois circuit did not buy Lincoln’s argument that Matson was traveling though, not settling with his slaves, therefore their status of slaves should remain.

A decade later the same argument would be used successfully on the Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which included judgements stating Black persons were not citizens; therefore they could not submit a habeas corpus. By this time, the federal government passed stronger restrictions with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Yet, the Tazewell portion of the Underground Railroad had already helped over 800 persons travel safely to freedom.

Next month, Tazewell County will honor Peter Logan as the first Black man and formerly enslaved individual to buy property in the county in 1837, a decade after Tazewell’s foundation. Logan would risk his newfound freedom to serve as a conductor in the movement. Logan’s legacy will be honored a day before Juneteenth, June 18 at the Tazewell County Courthouse.

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Brady started as WCBU's Audio Operations Coordinator in 2022. Brady is a member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers.