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Knox College Library
Special Collections and Archives
371 S. West Street
Galesburg, IL 61401-4999
The history of Galesburg, Illinois, which begins in 1837, includes the history of black Americans. The town was settled by earnest abolitionists from the "burned-over district" in New York state. Anti-slavery sentiment was an important part of the philosophy of Knox College, around which the town was founded. And indeed the year after the settlers arrived, the first anti-slavery society in the state was formed here.
Feelings ran high and throughout Knox County there were strong advocates for and against slavery. Nevertheless, as a stop on the Underground Railroad, Galesburg was a town that welcomed blacks from as early as the 1840s.
George Washington Gale, the inspiration and founder of Galesburg and Knox College was an ardent abolitionist. Gale and two other founders were indicted in 1843 for harboring slaves. While the charges were eventually dropped, the indictment indicated strong local opposition to the anti-slavery sentiment promoted by many of the townspeople.
While the town was proud of its openness, Galesburg was not without prejudice. Barnabas Root, one of the first black men to receive a college degree in Illinois, as well as Hiram Revels, the first black man to be elected to the United States Senate, both wrote of prejudice experienced when living in Galesburg and attending Knox College. Although good intentions were met sometimes by negative, Galesburg in the 19th Century provided a comfortable atmosphere for blacks settling here.
During the Civil War, twelve black men, led by Joseph Barquet, left Galesburg in 1863 to join the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. The first soldiers saw battle at Fort Wagner (South Carolina) and their heroic efforts were chronicled in a 19th century history, A History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (the cover title is A Brave Black Regiment). More recently, the unit was immortalized in the 1989 major Tristar move production, Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.
Some of the Galesburg men were wounded. One was taken prisoner. Some returned to their hometown after service. The roster of Galesburg men is listed here.