by Melissa Calhoun, Infobahn Outfitters, Inc.”Illinois Women in Public Life” encompasses women who earned the title “philanthropist”, “benefactress”, “social activist”, and “politician”. Also included are women in the public eye because of their husbands’ business, social, or political position in Illinois society.
During Illinois’ first century of statehood, the role of women in American society underwent dramatic change. In 1818, few women were activists or politicians. As the 19th century progressed, women became more autonomous. In 1918, women were actively campaigning in the suffrage movement to gain women’s right to vote (the 19th Amendment was signed into law in 1920).
Women’s influence in political and social reforms was felt in several arenas. Abolition of slavery was supported by many Illinois women. Social programs to aid immigrants and children were another. Harriet Vittum of the Northwestern University Settlement House, Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House, and many others were instrumental in improving health care, child care, child labor, and education of Chicago’s immigrant population. Many of these same women were strong supporters of the women’s suffrage movement. Temperance and prohibition were other causes pursued by women.
Social and literary clubs became increasingly popular in the late 19th century. Topics were often of a literary or light social nature, but these women’s clubs also focused on important social issues of the time. The Friends of Council of Quincy discussed philosophy and history, but meetings included more controversial topics. In 1869, club discussion included “Woman’s Suffrage – Right and Policy”. These clubs and the social reforms they brought were not always popular. For example, in the 1830s, distaste for women’s involvement in public affairs resulted in gentlemen reading minutes for women during public meetings.
In addition to change effected by activism and physical effort, many Illinois women of means supported social change through gifts of land and property for public and private institutions. Many benefactresses were successful businesswomen in their own right and they conceived of and built Illinois schools, universities, libraries, orphanages, and hospitals. Georgina Trotter, Sarah Withers, and Sarah Raymond played significant roles in education and libraries in Bloomington. Lydia Moss Bradley’s legacy to Peoria included Bradley Park, Peoria’s Home for Aged Women and Bradley Polytechnic Institute (now Bradley University).
The effects of Illinois’ First Ladies on Illinois society may be the most difficult to measure. At a national level, First Ladies often quietly contributed to decisions made by U.S. Presidents. The same most certainly must be true of Illinois’ first ladies.
The influence of Illinois’ women is intricately woven into the state’s history and its future. One cannot imagine life in Illinois without the institutions and reforms produced by dedicated, hard-working Illinois women.
- Illinois Women: 75 Years of the Right to Vote. 1996, Chicago Sun-Times Features, Inc. in cooperation with Governor Edgar’s Commission for the celebration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment.
- Various articles included in this web site (see below).
Photograph of montage, courtesy of Quincy Public Library, Quincy, Illinois
Photos courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library
Special thanks to: Kathryn Harris, Director; Bridget Lamont, Director Illinois State Library; Valerie Wilford, Director, Alliance Library System, and Shawn Edwards, Alliance Library System.
NOTE: Access a larger version of the images by following the link over the images.
wife of Shadrack Bond, the first governor of Illinois, 1818-1822
|Photo Not Available||Sally Logan Roberts Coles
wife of Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois, 1822-1826
(Sally and Edward married in 1833 after Edward’s term as governor)
|Photo Not Available||Elvira Lane Edwards
wife of Ninian Edwards, the third governor of Illinois, 1826-1830
wife John Reynolds, the fourth governor of Illinois, 1830-1834
|Photo Not Available||Caroline Berry Ewing
wife of William Lee Davidson Ewing, the fifth governor of Illinois, 1834
|Photo Not Available||Elizabeth Caldwell Smith Duncan
wife of Joseph Duncan, the sixth governor of Illinois, 1834-1838
|Rebecca Huitt Carlin
wife of Thomas Carlin, the seventh governor of Illinois, 1838-1842
|Frances Hambaugh Ford
wife of Thomas Ford, the eighth governor of Illinois, 1842-1846
|Lucy Southwick French
wife of Augustus C. French, the ninth governor of Illinois, 1846-1853
|Mary Fish Matteson
wife of Joel Aldrich Matteson, the tenth governor of Illinois, 1853-1857
|Photo Not Available||Emily Susan Jones Bissell
wife of William Harrison Bissell, the eleventh governor of Illinois, 1857-1860
|Photo Not Available||Ann Streeter Wood
wife of John Wood, the twelfth governor of Illinois, 1860-1861
|Catherine Geers Yates
wife of Richard Yates, the thirteenth governor of Illinois, 1861-1865
|Emma Gillette Keays Oglesby
wife of Richard James Oglesby, the fourteenth, sixteenth, and twentieth governor of Illinois, 1865-1869, 1873, 1885-1889
|Malinda Ann Neely Palmer
wife of John McAuley Palmer, the fifteenth governor of Illinois, 1869-1873
|Photo Not Available||Helen May Judson Beveridge
wife of John Lourie Beveridge, the seventeenth governor of Illinois, 1873-1877
|Julia Fisher Cullom
wife of Shelby Moore Cullom, the eighteenth governor of Illinois, 1877-1883
|Helen Williams Hamilton
wife of John Marshall Hamilton, the nineteenth governor of Illinois, 1883-1885
|Gertrude Lewis Fifer
wife of Joseph Wilson Fifer, the twenty-first governor of Illinois, 1889-1893
|Emma Ford Altgeld
wife of John Peter Altgeld, the twenty-second governor of Illinois, 1893-1897
|Cora Edith English Tanner
wife of John Riley Tanner, the twenty-third governor of Illiinois, 1897-1901
|Photo Not Available||Helen Wadsworth Yates
wife of Richard Yates, the twenty-fourth governor of Illinois, 1901-1905
|Bina Day Maloney Deneen
wife of Charles Samuel Deneen, the twenty-fifth governor of Illinois, 1905-1913
|Photo Not Available||Elizabeth Kelly Dunne
wife of Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne, the twenty-sixth governor of Illinois, 1913-1917
|Photo Not Available||Florence Pullman Lowden
wife of Frank Orren Lowden, the twenty-seventh governor of Illinois, 1917-1921
Information about Illinois’ Governors can be found at:
Georgina Trotter, First Woman on the Bloomington Board of Education
|Photo of Georgina Trotter||Georgina Trotter, first woman on the Bloomington Board of Education, served on Withers Library Board (and raised funds for the library), was a successful businesswoman (with brother John Trotter) in the lumber, grain and coal business and had served in the Civil War as a nurse. With her friend, Sarah Raymond, she was considered a “power in the education affairs of Bloomington.”|
|Souvenir Program Memorial Foundation||Georgina Trotter biography|
Harriet E. Vittum
Generous. Energetic. Hard-working. Progressive. The adjectives used to describe Harriet Elizabeth Vittum could fill volumes. Few people have dedicated their lives so selflessly and so humbly to public service-and with so little fanfare. While others justifiably praise Jane Addams for her pioneering work at Hull House, few people remember a woman who in her lifetime was hailed as “a second Jane Addams” and who worked every bit as hard on behalf of the poor and displaced for justice and social reform.
The paragraph above, taken from The Worn Doorstep : Informal History of Northwestern University Settlement Association, 1891-1991, could not be a more fitting description of Harriet Vittum. It is because of all her accomplishments that she is deservedly placed in this grouping of Early Illinois Women.
Harriet E. Vittum was born in Canton, Illinois, on February 14, 1872. She received her education in local public schools and had an early interest in medicine. She began in her family’s home what would become the first hospital in Canton. It was known as the Altruistic Hospital, originated by the Altruistic Club, with Miss Vittum in charge. According to a newspaper account from the Cantonian of October 12, 1899, several complicated surgeries were performed in this hospital at the Vittum home by local area doctors with Miss Vittum in attendance. The account described the first two surgeries at the hospital : a skull fracture with abscesses and the removal of a tumor on a child’s neck. It was from this Altruistic Hospital that the germination for a larger institution to serve the county began to emerge and finally culminate with the dedication of Graham Hospital in October of 1909.
Earlier Miss Vittum had journeyed to Chicago in 1893 to work in the Illinois Building of the Columbian Exposition. She joined the staff of the Illinois Children’s Aid Society, where she worked for three years. In 1904 Miss Vittum went to work at the Northwestern University Settlement, where she served as a volunteer and shortly thereafter became Head Resident, a position she held for 40 years. She continued to be deeply involved in infant care and health education at the Settlement. Many people of the time were not knowledgeable about children’s health care and were also intimidated by doctors and hospitals. Many were European immigrants without fluency in English. These programs provided a means to educating parents and provided emotional support as well. Mothers’ Clubs and Fathers’ Clubs were formed. In The Worn Doorstep : Informal History of Northwestern University Settlement Association, 1891-1991 there is an account of the Settlement providing needy families with Thanksgiving Day dinners. An excerpt from a letter of one of the recipients is as follows:
I always said and will always say that Miss Vittum is just a mother to me and to many other poor families. Miss Vittum has done more for me than a mother could. Now I have three children. My home conditions are very improved today. It is all through the Settlement. The Northwestern University Settlement is the one that put me on my feet. I certainly do appreciate it from the bottom of my feet to the top of my heart.
Campaign Postcard View of Public Square, Canton, Illinois about the time Harriet Vittum lived there. Political Cartoon Letter from Harold L. Ickes to Miss Vittum
Many settlement houses of the time were allied with the Progressive Party. It is not surprising with her interest in social conditions that Miss Vittum became active in politics. She had been at the Settlement at the same time as Raymond Robins, who along with his wife, Margaret Dreier, had a great influence on the social welfare and politics of the time. Miss Vittum had been an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. Miss Vittum worked for the Progressive Party and in 1914-six years before women won the right to vote at the federal level-she ran, unsuccessfully, for alderman of the 17th Ward (formerly the 16th) as an independent candidate. Later that year she and Mary McDowell of the University of Chicago Settlement ran unsuccessfully for the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 1916 Miss Vittum was named chief of the women’s bureau for Republican presidential candidate Charles Evan Hughes. In 1920 she was a leader in the national women’s division of General Leonard Wood’s campaign for the Republican nomination for presidency.
She served on many boards of Chicago welfare and social service organizations. She held positions as president of the Chicago Kindergarten Institute; head of the Federal Housing Authority, Women’s Division, Chicago Association of Better Housing Commission; and president of the Roll Call of American Women. In 1937 she was honored with the Civic Trophy of the Citizens Award Committee for the “most unselfish meritorious service to Chicago in 1936.” As recent as January 1992 she was named to the Hall of Fame of Historic Illinoisians by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois
Miss Vittum continued her work with the settlement through another war time-World War II-and in 1947 announced she would be leaving Northwestern University Settlement. Although she was 75 years old, she did not use the word, “retirement,” as she felt there was always a job to do. Harold L. Ickes, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and early Progressive Party supporter, wrote Harriet a letter upon her retirement. In it, Harold L. Ickes referred to her as “one who has labored so long and so effectively to give people understanding and help and sustain them during the hard times of which our generation seems to have had more than its share.” In an interview that appeared in the Canton Daily Ledger in May of 1949 Harriet referred to her years following her position at the Settlement as ” the richest life I could have possibly had, a full rich life, with so many friends and such interesting work.”
Miss Vittum remained active until her death on December 16, 1953 in Passavant Hospital as the result of a stroke. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetary, Canton, Illinois.
Wukas, Mark. The Worn Doorstep: Informal History of Northwestern University Settlement Association, 1891-1991. Chicago : Northwestern University Settlement Association, Inc., 1991.
Lewis, Edward R. Jr. Reflections of Canton in a Pharmacist’s Show Globe : a comprehensive History of Canton, Illinois and the Important Events in Fulton County. [S.l. : s.n.], 1967.
Doris Overboe, Historian, Northwestern University Settlement Association
Ronald R. Manderschied, Executive Director, Northwestern University Settlement Association
Mark Wukas, Author
Edward R. Lewis, Jr., Author
Special thanks and note to researchers: The Northwestern University Archives is the official depository for records on the Northwestern University Settlement Association and the papers of Harriet E. Vittum. For more information, contact:
Patrick M. Quinn, University Archivist
Northwestern University Archives
110 Deering Library
1935 Sheridan Road
Evanston, Illinois 60208-2300
Lydia Moss Bradley from Peoria
Click on an image to view a larger image.
Oil painting of Lydia Moss Bradley by William Hardin ’50 currently hanging in the Hartmann Center. Mrs. Bradley wears a broach with an image of her husband Tobias, a practice she reportedly observed every day after his death in 1867 until her own in 1908. Lydia Bradley at about age 90 in the garden of her home at 802 W. Moss Avenue. Born on a farm, Mrs. Bradley learned early to cultivate her own fruits and vegetables as well as to churn butter, render lard, and preserve meat–skills she continued to employ even as a wealthy, elderly widow. In 1885, after nearly doubling the value of the estate left to her by her husband, Mrs. Bradley hired local lawyer W.W. Hammond as her business manager starting a relationship which lasted until her death and even beyond for Hammond managed the affairs of Bradley Polytechnic Institute until his own death in 1920. Despite her growing investments, Mrs. Bradley maintained no office but met with Hammond each morning in her home. According to Hammond, “At these meetings all papers necessary to be signed were presented and read to her..she signed all checks after knowing what they were for..no investment was ever made without..receiving her approval.” In 1858, Tobias Bradley, already a successful businessman with interests in banking, railroads, steamboats, distilleries and real estate, built an imposing brick residence which stands today at 802 W. Moss. Mrs. Bradley continued to live at this house until her death on January 16, 1908. Lydia Moss Bradley poses for a formal portrait on the porch of her home on Moss Avenue. The image served as the model for a painting later done by William Hardin ’50 which hangs in the Founders Room of the Hartmann Center on campus. The metal plate on the door reads “T.S. Bradley” and is part of the University’s Special Collections. Portrait of Lydia Bradley taken in 1907, the last year of her life. Reprinted in a “Peoria Journal” article dated May 25, 1913, concerning discussion by the Peoria Park Board about erecting a monument to the woman who gave the city its first public park in 1881. Lydia Bradley about 1897, one of a series of photographs taken for Peoria sculptor Fritz Triebel who used them to carve a bust of Carrarra marble at a studio in Rome. The bust, one-third larger than life-size was officially presented to the school at graduation ceremonies in June 1899. At first the bust was kept veiled save for special occasions, a practice which prompted student complaints in the December 1899 issue of “The Tech.” The bust survived the 1963 fire in Bradley Hall and remains in University possession. Undated photo of Mrs. Bradley believed to have been taken in the 1880’s. One in a series of photographs of Lydia Bradley taken used by sculptor Fritz Triebel for a bust presented to the University in 1899. The same images were later used for a life-size bronze statue installed in the old ODK circle in front of Bradley Hall in the fall of 1997. Considered somewhat reclusive in her later years, Mrs. Bradley nonetheless enjoyed the company of close friends and her niece Lydia Baggs. Enlarged detail of a photograph taken of Mrs. Bradley on the porch of her home. The original image, on an 8×10 glass plate covering the entire house, was so sharp that this portion could be used for as the model for an oil portrait over fifty years later. Photo of Lydia Moss Bradley Photo of Lydia Portrait engraving of Lydia Bradley from the 1890 “Portrait and Biographical Album of Peoria County.” The hair style and dress suggest the image depicts a much younger woman, possibly from the 1860’s. Portrait of Mrs. Bradley from “Scientific Magazine,” July 8, 1893. Lydia had donated over 100 acres of land to the City of Peoria for a park, later named in memory of her daughter Laura. The original photograph by Smith and Loquist of Peoria was also used as the basis for an engraving in the 1890 “Portrait and Biographical Album of Peoria County.” The hairstyle and dress, however, suggest this image itself was a copy of a much earlier portrait, perhaps dating back to the 1860s. Lydia with group of children Cropped image of Tobias Bradley If you turned an estate worth half a million dollars into a fortune of over two million dollars you would be prosperous. If you were the director of the board of a national bank for twenty-five years you would be a leader. If you donated a city park and endowed a private college, and if you gave money and land to many community projects, you would be a great philanthropist. If you accomplished all of this as a woman, you would be astonishing, and, if you achieved all of this as a woman between the years of 1816 and 1908, you would be Lydia Moss Bradley.
Born in Vevay, Indiana July 31, 1816, Lydia Moss Bradley grew up on the family farm alongside the Ohio river. Her father, Zeally Moss, was born March 6, in Loudoun County, Virginia in 1755, and her mother, Jennett Glasscock Moss, was born in Fauquier County, Virginia in 1766. Prior to their marriage, Zeally Moss was a non-commissioned officer during the Revolutionary War. He was also previously married in 1786 to Elizabeth Barry, and fathered a daughter. Elizabeth Barry died in childbirth, but the daughter survived. (Davis 43)
Before Lydia Moss Bradley’s birth, Zeally Moss owned a plantation in Kentucky. In spite of the prevalence of slavery in the south, Zeally Moss found that he could not accept its terms and determined that slavery was not how he wished to make a living. He reportedly, “gave the place rent free to his Negroes to work out their own living, while he crossed over into free territory to make his home and rear his family.” (Wyckoff, The First Decade 121)
Her father’s distaste for slavery made an impact on Lydia Moss Bradley. In slavery, “she saw . . . only harm for both white and black, with the advantage, if any, in favor of the blacks.” (Wyckoff, The First Decade 121) It has been reported, but never confirmed, that she may have even had some part in the Underground Railroad through Peoria. What is confirmed by several accounts is that her feelings were strong enough to win out over her husband’s, who felt that there were more opportunities for them in Kentucky. Lydia Moss Bradley chose for their new home, a non-slave state, Illinois.
In addition to her strong views regarding slavery, Lydia Moss Bradley developed deep convictions on work, skill, thrift, and economy. Although her father had an impressive business sense, which Lydia would inherit, and the family became quite prosperous in land holdings, every member of the family worked on the farm. Even in her later years as one of the wealthiest citizens in the Peoria area, business managed W. W. Hammond reported:
“Mrs. Bradley never forgot how to work, and till within a short time of her death still made her own butter, raised her own eggs, salted down her own meat and tried out her own lard. She would not have considered herself a good housekeeper had she not done so. The housewife of those times was expected to stock the larder with meats and fruits, to spin the yarn, make the clothing, bedding and carpets, and to prepare food in plenty for all who chanced to be present when meal time came round. All these things Mrs. Bradley did.” (Wyckoff, The First Decade 121)
Lydia Moss Bradley believed that industriousness was required of all able-bodied members of a community. This view, coupled with her limited schooling, reportedly in a neighbor’s kitchen with no heat, few books, and hand-made quill pens, would eventually be the impetus to found a school. Lydia Moss Bradley wanted to give young people educational opportunities which she never had; she wanted to give them “the most practical assistance at the best time of their lives to make them independent, self-supporting, useful men and women.” (Wyckoff, The First Decade 124)
Hammond reported another aspect of Lydia Moss Bradley’s youth which foretold her business days to come, was a transaction involving a colt. Her father gave a young colt, which had lost its mother, to his daughter to raise. After raising enough money for a saddle and bridle, and certainly enjoying the horse as the only access to social life in those days, she sold it in exchange for 40 acres of forested land. By clearing this land and selling the timber, Lydia was developing the business sense which would serve her so well in later years.
Through the clearing of her newly acquired land, Lydia met her future husband. Tobias Bradley was running the saw mill where the lumber was processed. Lydia and Tobias were married May 11, 1837, and initially lived with her parents in Vevay.
The Bradley’s first child, Rebecca, was born January 20, 1839. That same year, Zeally Moss died leaving Lydia the family farm. The Bradleys stayed on in Vevay where their second child, Clarissa, was born October, 26, 1843, but the family’s history of loss would begin with Rebecca’s death September 2, 1845. In 1847, Lydia, along with Tobias, Clarissa, and Lydia’s mother, moved to Peoria to join her brother William Moss, who had already moved to Peoria. In Peoria the Bradleys purchased a large tract of land with the proceeds from the sale of their land holdings in Vevay. Peoria, in its early development, became an excellent place for Tobias Bradley and William Moss to prosper in business ventures.
In the early days in Peoria, Lydia was the housewife and mother, while her husband ran the business affairs. Unfortunately, the Bradleys were far more fortunate in business than as parents, and the rest of their family life was saddened by the death of all six of their children. Both Clarissa and her brother Tobias Moss, who was born April 28, 1847, died during the year the family moved to Peoria. Laura was born April 24, 1849 and lived longer than any of the other children. She died in 1864 at the age of fourteen. Mary died April 25, 1852 living less than a year, and William died August 25, 1855 at the age of two.
Despite the great tragedies suffered by the Bradleys, they reportedly remained hopeful, and were very attached to their daughter, Laura, their only child to reach adolescence. During these same difficult years, Tobias Bradley and William Moss joined forces in several business ventures. In business dealings the Bradleys were charmed and soon became quite wealthy. In early days Tobias Bradley ran another saw mill, and captained the steamboat Avalanche owned by William Moss. Tobias Bradley also joined William Moss’s distilling business, and Moss, Bradley & Co. existed as a successful Peoria business for many years. The growing city was a perfect place to be successful in business. Tobias Bradley continued to purchase land, and bought stock in new companies. Before his death, he and Lydia began their philanthropic work, which she would continue vigorously on her own.
Shortly before Tobias Bradley’s untimely death in a carriage accident, the couple began looking into ways in which they could construct a monument to their deceased children. They discussed the idea of an orphanage, but Lydia Moss Bradley later decided that such institutions were often ill-equipped to help young people acquire skills which they required to become independent. When she was unexpectedly left on her own, she determined that a place of learning was her wish as a lasting memorial to her entire family.
Tobias Bradley died without a will and without plans for his wife in the event of such an accident. The estate left her was valued at approximately $500,000. She hired a bookkeeper and took over the financial aspects of their estate.
At the time of his death, Tobias Bradley was the president of the First National Bank of Peoria. Lydia Moss Bradley inherited the stock which he owned in the bank, and became a member of the board of directors. For twenty-five of the nearly thirty-four years as a board member, she held the position of Director. Local papers reported that she was the only woman in the state to serve as director of a national bank. Although it is difficult to determine how many, if any other women in the country held similar positions, it was certainly an uncommon accomplishment for a woman in the late eighteen hundreds.
Two years after her husband’s death, Lydia Moss Bradley remarried. The reason for the marriage is unclear, but speculation exists that she hoped to gain some business or financial guidance. She was savvy enough be careful with her wealth, however, and was unwilling to place herself in a position of vulnerability. Lydia Moss Bradley had a legal prenuptial agreement drawn up declaring that in the event of a divorce each would retain their individual holdings. Lydia Moss Bradley and Edward Clark divorced in 1873.
Without a husband or children, Lydia Moss Bradley occupied herself with industriousness. She hired a business manager, W. W. Hammond, and set about her task of researching and funding a fitting memorial to her family. She chose wisely in her decision to hire Hammond; he was not only astute in business matters but was also a lawyer and was subsequently able to protect her transactions. When Hammond was hired, Mrs. Bradley’s wealth had already grown from $500,000 to about $1,000,000. Mr. Hammond maintained that he met with Mrs. Bradley nearly every day from the time he was employed until her death, and she always insisted on being informed and consenting to any and all transactions. She signed all of her own checks until her final illness left her bedridden.
Amid her other philanthropic gestures, such as Bradley Park and Peoria’s Home for Aged Women, Lydia Moss Bradley began investigating schools as models for the one she planned to endow through her will. She visited Rose Polytechnic Institute in 1877 in her effort to determine the shape of her own school. Throop Polytechnic, Armour Institute, and Lewis Institute were all assessed in order to learn how each was preparing students to meet the needs of the future. Throughout her investigations she was always interested in starting an institute for both young men and young women. She looked into polytechnic schools because she felt that practical skills were tremendously important in helping people to be successful and industrious. Her wish was to start a school which offered the sciences and literature, as well as technical training. Whether students chose a professional career or a career in industry, she felt the well rounded education would serve them either way.
During her research into polytechnic schools and institutes, Lydia Moss Bradley learned that the cost of such schools was far greater that that of liberal arts institutions. The figures were greater than the value of her estate, and so she decided to continue her business efforts in order to fully endow a school of the highest standards.
Thrift was always a virtue in Lydia Moss Bradley’s eyes, but she never skimped on the necessities of keeping what she considered an appropriately appointed home. Mrs. Hammond was quoted in the Peoria Journal Transcript as saying:
“There has been a tendency on the part of later historians to picture Mrs. Bradley as a penurious woman, who denied herself all the luxuries and many of the comforts of life in order to amass her fortune for the institute. . . . They make her a recluse and a penny pinching eccentric . . . . Such a picture is entirely untrue.” (Barger 3)
Mrs. Hammond says that Mrs. Bradley was always warm and generous. She says Lydia was one whose home was “handsomely furnished, whose clothes were of the finest materials, who set an excellent table, maintained a house full of choice flowers, had several servants and kept an excellent carriage, and bestowed costly gifts.” (Barger 3) Mr. Hammond explained that between the years of 1885 and 1897, Lydia Moss Bradley increased her net worth by one million dollars. Certainly not all of this was through thrift.
One of the ways in which she made such a substantial increase in her wealth had been her ability to improve the quality of land. She owned 680 acres of Manito Marsh. The land was drained, and Lydia Moss Bradley built farm buildings, fences, and began cultivating the land for farming, but the crops did poorly. When the crops failed to improve over time, she sent samples of the soil to Champaign for analysis. The soil was very rich, but it lacked potash. By amending the soil, Lydia Moss Bradley’s farms became successful. The farmers working her land benefited, the land became useful, neighboring farmers followed suit and improved their own crops, and the value of the land was increased dramatically. Lydia Moss Bradley purchased this marsh land for $10 per acre, and when the crops became successful, the lots sold for up to $140 per acre. (Wyckoff, The First Decade 38-39)
Hammond said of Lydia Moss Bradley:
“What she knew, she knew, and would not be cheated out of it by sophistry or persuasion. What she did not know, she never pretended to know, and was willing to have settled by those who did know.” (Wyckoff, The First Decade 126)
Her willingness to seek out experts to aid her in her decision making is one of the great keys to Lydia Moss Bradley’s success. Despite her own lack of education, like any good leader, she surrounded herself with experts in each and every field where she needed more information. In this way she made informed decisions on subjects about which she would otherwise have no knowledge.
One of the best pieces of advice Lydia Moss Bradley received came from William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago. When he heard of Lydia Moss Bradley’s plans, he came to visit her in Peoria. He suggested that she begin the school right away instead of leaving the provisions in her will. He looked over her finances, and “he assured her she had sufficient funds, and tendered her the unlimited co-operation and advice of the University and its scope of educators.” (Hammond 318) In retrospect, Dr. Harper’s advice was far more valuable than anyone could have imagined at the time.
Following Dr. Harper’s suggestion gave Lydia Moss Bradley enormous emotional satisfaction. She was able to see the creation brought about by her efforts. All records indicate that in Bradley’s early days, Lydia Moss Bradley rarely missed special events at the Institute. She is said to have entertained students in her kitchen and garden some afternoons, and she is almost always reported to have been an honored guest on founder’s days and graduations. In many speeches and especially in the memorial addresses after her death, those who knew her felt that the Institute had a profound effect on Lydia Moss Bradley’s happiness in those last years. Students, faculty, and trustees also felt glad that they had had the opportunity to express their appreciation to their school’s founder while she lived. It isn’t difficult to speculate that without the hope and satisfaction she gained through her efforts to bring Bradley into existence, Lydia Moss Bradley would have had far less reason to live such a long and active life.
The creation of Bradley Polytechnic Institute was a cause for excitement in Peoria and especially for those involved in its development. There were, however, a few episodes from the early days of Bradley’s creation which have caused controversy. Most of the controversy comes from disagreement about the nature of the connection between the University of Chicago and Bradley Polytechnic Institute. It was reported in the Peoria Transcript from November 17, 1896:
“Some months ago President William R. Harper, of the University of Chicago, was interested in the project, and it was soon arranged that the school should be affiliated with the University of Chicago, and that he should have charge of the course of study and general plan of the institution.” (6)
Most of the confusion arises from the word “affiliated.” Those who took the work to mean that Bradley would be a branch of the University of Chicago were certainly mistaken. There was a connection, but the funding and the control of Bradley Polytechnic was to remain in the hands of Peorians. Charles Wyckoff explains:
“Bradley Institute was formed . . . with Dr. Harper as president of the faculty, a position he filled til his death in 1906. The local management was in the hands of a director . . . . It is not strange that, through the connection of Dr. Harper with the founding of the institute, some should have regarded it as a part of the University [of Chicago] Indeed, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, speaking of Lyman J. Gage, says he spent October 8 ‘In Peoria . . . on the occasion of the dedication of a branch of the Chicago University’. This . . . was at once corrected. It was shown that Dr. Harper’s position as president of the Bradley faculty was honorary and advisory only and in no way encroached on the independent status of the new institution.” (Wyckoff, Four Decades 13-14)
Illustrating the point, the Peoria Herald reported:
“An impression has gone abroad that it [Bradley Polytechnic] is a part of the Chicago University, and that the Chicago institution has aided in its establishment and that it in turn expects to derive benefit from the Peoria educational school. This . . . is entirely incorrect and the fact that such an idea has been regarded as the truth much displeases Mrs. Lydia Bradley who founded the school and has provided for its maintenance. . . . the local board is anxious that it be known all over the country that the Bradley Institute is a Peoria concern and independent of any college, university or school in Chicago or any other place.” (Peoria Herald 9)
These controversies present difficulty today because it is hard to know exactly how outspoken Lydia Moss Bradley was regarding ideas which she held dear. There is evidence, however, that those in charge of the institution’s direction were very keenly aware of Mrs. Bradley’s wishes and hoped to satisfy their benefactress through their actions. Lydia Moss Bradley also seems to have had a great respect for those entrusted with the development of Bradley and typically felt that her wishes were in safe hands. T. C. Burgess said that when he asked for her advice, Lydia Moss Bradley usually replied:
“I have placed the management of the Institute in the hands of the Trustees and Faculty. Let them use their own judgment. I have no knowledge of such matters. I have full confidence in them. Whatever they decide will please me.” (Wyckoff, The First Decade 35)
In one other somewhat controversial incident, there was again confusion as to how much control the University of Chicago would exert upon Bradley Polytechnic Institute. In this instance the confusion was regarding plans to segregate the sexes at the University of Chicago. This incidence clearly indicates that despite an enormous respect and reverence for Dr. Harper and the University of Chicago, Bradley would make decisions independent of that institution. It was reported in the Peoria Journal of October 7, 1902 that although Dr. Harper was in the process of advocating segregation of the sexes at the University of Chicago, Bradley would not follow suit. The article stated:
” [In response to]. . . . the rumor that President Harper, of the University of Chicago, intended to carry out to its logical issue in the Bradley Institute his ideas on the segregation of the sexes . . . Hon. O. J. Bailey, president of the board of directors of [Bradley] . . . said this morning: ‘There has been . . . . no discussion of this matter . . . .at any board meeting. The board was . . . a unit on the matter of co-education and the matter has received no subsequent discussion. . . . I recognize the force with which Dr. Harper has presented his views . . . as applied to a great institution like the University of Chicago. These arguments, however, do not, in my opinion, apply with the same force to such an institution as Bradley. And it may safely be asserted in view of the charter power and requirements that Bradley Institute will always remain co-educational in its original sense.'” (115)
Although the above quote is not attributed to Lydia Moss Bradley herself, there is every reason to believe that President Bailey was acting according to her wishes. He also mentions the fact that these items were written into the original charter of the school. Lydia Moss Bradley knew that to safeguard her initial plans for the Bradley Institute, she could not leave many issues open to interpretation. She purposely placed a majority of Peorians on the board and had the ratio of resident Peorians written into the charter to make certain that Bradley always served the community it was intended to. A relative of hers, Zealy Moss Holmes, was one such Peorian, not involved in education, whom she asked to sit on the board.
Although we don’t have her own words through letters or a journal, it is still possible to get a sense of how Mrs. Bradley’s mind worked. In a time when women could not vote, Lydia Moss Bradley’s power had to be acquired and utilized carefully. She was a strong, independent woman in a time when women were expected to be tractable. If she had acquired so much wealth and influence for her own glorification she might have been viewed very differently, but she established the respect of those close to her through her character and her generosity.
In the end, Peoria got Bradley Polytechnic Institute, which developed into Bradley University. Lydia Moss Bradley lived to see the initial years and first graduates of the institution which was her tribute to the memory of her deceased family. The Chicago Times Herald reported on the occasion of the dedication, Oct. 9, 1892:
“but in the few sentences she uttered were compressed the ideals she had cherished for half a century. She said she hoped the institute would be a real benefit to mankind; that it would be the means of making better men and women; that boys and girls would find in the new institution of learning an incentive to intellectual life was her ardent wish.” (14)
Bradley Family Bible. Special Collection Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Barger, Marilee. “Personal Anecdotes of Lydia” Peoria Journal Transcript 29 April 1934: Sec. 4, pg. 3. Included in the Peoria Historial Society’s Vertical File. Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Chicago Times Herald 9 October 1897. Newspaper clipping included in Bradley Polytechnic Scrapbook, Photocopied Edition, Vol. 1, pg. 14. Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Davis, Olive. From the Ohio to the San Joaquin: A Biography of William Moss 1798-1883. Stockton: Heritage West Books, 1991.
The First Decade: 1897-1907. Ed. Charles Truman Wyckoff. Peoria: B Press, 1908.
Genealogical Information compiled by Nanette Meals. Included in the Lydia Moss Bradley Vertical File, Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria Illinios.
Hammond, W. W. “Park Board’s Action in Favor of Bradley Memorial Recalls Peoria’s Foremost Woman.” Peoria Journal 25 May 1913: 114. Newspaper clipping included in Bradley Polytechnic Scrapbook, Photocopied Edition, Vol. 2, pg. 318. Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Peoria Herald 19 September 1897. Newspaper clipping included in Bradley Polytechnic Scrapbook, Photocopied Edition, Vol. 1, pg. 9. Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Peoria Journal 17 November 1896. Newspaper clipping included in Bradley Polytechnic Scrapbook, Photocopied Edition, Vol. 1, pg. 6. Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Photographs, Drawings, Historical Items, available in both Peoria Historical Society Collection Vertical Files, and Bradley University Library Collection Vertical Files. Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library, Peoria Illinios.
Upton, Allen A. Forgotten Angel. United States of America: n.p., 1988.
Wyckoff, Charles Truman. Four Decades ts. Unpublished History, 1937. Special Collections, Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinios.
Yates, Louis A. R. A Proud Heritage: Bradley’s History 1897-1972. n.p. : Observer Press, 1974.
Eva G. Monroe (1868-?)
Eva G. Monroe was born in Kewanee, Illinois in 1868. At the age of twelve, following her mother’s death, Eva took on the responsibilities of six younger siblings.
In 1898, she moved to the Illinois capital of Springfield. While walking in the city, she became familiar with the plight of poor black children with little clothing, food or housing. In response, she contracted to purchase a nine room house at 427 S. 12th Street. She traveled across Illinois seeking donations from fellow African Americans to pay for the home and for the care of the children. Four children and one infirm and aged mother were the first residents at Eva Monroe’s Lincoln Colored Home.
In 1915, Mrs. Monroe secured a charter for the Mary A. Lawrence Industrial School for Colored Girls and the Lincoln Industrial School for Colored Boys. She was also instrumental in organization other facilities and schools for African American children in other parts of Illinois.
In addition, she was a member of the John Brown Relief Corps of Springfield, serving in several state offices of the group’s parent organization, the Woman’s Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic. Mrs. Monroe was also a member of the Methodist Church, the Women Christian Temperance Union, and the Phyllis Wheatley Home Association of Chicago.
- Davis, Elizabeth Lindsay. 1922. The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
African American Women’s Clubs in Illinois
The African American Women’s Clubs (also known as the Colored Women’s Clubs) were played a major role in the African American segment of the Progressive Movement in the years surrounding 1900. These clubs were located throughout the state. A few members of the clubs are listed below.
Mrs. Sheppard was one of Peoria’s leading down-state clubwomen. She held many offices within the clubs and was known as a welfare worker in Peoria. She was also a member of the Woman’s Aid Club and a member of the City Federation of Women’s Clubs of Peoria. The City Federation included all clubs regardless of the race, creed or color of their members.
Rev. Celia Parker Wooley
Rev. Wooley was born in Toledo in 1843 and spent her childhood in Michigan, where she graduated from the Coldwater Female Seminary. She married Dr. J. H. Wooley in 1868 and moved to Chicago in 1876. In 1894, she was ordained as a minister in the Unitarian Fellowship at Geneva, Illinois. She was active in several African American women’s organizations.
Irene Sappington Goins
Irene Sappington Goins was born in Quincy, Illinois and attended schools in Quincy and in Springfield. She and her husband Henry Sherman Goins moved to Chicago in 1895. Mrs. Goins began a millinery business in the city, and was also active in social and welfore work. She held office in the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Inter-Racial Co-Operative Committee, and the Executive Board of Women’s Trade Union League.
Ethel McCracken Cleaves
Mrs. Ethel McCracken Cleaves was born in Alton, Illinois. Her family moved to Chicago when she was young. She attended Wilberforce University, later teaching in Golconda, Carbondale, and Chicago schools. She held offices in several clubs and was active in the Phyllis Sheatley and Volunteer Workers’ Clubs.
Susan E. Cannon Allen
Susan Cannon Allen was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1859. She was educated in Monmouth, with the intentions of teaching in foreign mission fields. She was prominent in club work and a strong advocate for temperance for women’s suffrage.
Mildred A. Weaks Williams
Mildred Weaks Williams was born in Jersey County, Illinois. She later lived in Alton and Springfield. In 1904, she established a millinery business for herself in Chicago. She was a member of several clubs and did considerable work with the Second Ward Club for the local Red Cross during World War I.
- Davis, Elizabeth Lindsay. 1922. The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Sarah Atwater Denman, 1808-1882
Sarah Atwater Denman moved to Quincy in 1842 making her home at 9th and Broadway. In November 1866, Mrs. Denman invited twelve ladies to her home to read and discuss philosophy and literature. This group came to be known as Friends in Council and is the oldest continuous literary club in America. Sarah was the guiding influence and inspiration of the club. This photograph is courtesy of Friends in Council. Sarah Denman as a young woman. Sarah Atwater lived in New York City until the age of 18, when she married Mathias Denman. Friends in Council Study Clubhouse. For 37 years meetings were held in this house in the Denman garden at 9th and Broadway. In 1915 the clubhouse was moved to the grounds of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, 12th and State Street, Quincy. A cameo photo of Sarah is on the right. Anna B. McMahon is pictured on the left. Document is courtesy of the Friends in Council Minutes of the meeting reflecting the decision to adopt a constitution and elect officers. Minutes are courtesy of Friends in Council. [Transcription of minutes] Friends in Council, 1866-1916. Original 5 x 7 inch 30-page booklet was published to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of the study club. Document is courtesy of Friends in Council. [Complete text] A Friend of the City. Article on the death of Sarah Denman, May 18, 1882. [Transcription of article] Photo of Pioneer Women plaque located at the Women’s City Club at 16th and Maine in Quincy, Illinois. In addition to Sarah Denman, the plaque commemorates Cora Benneson, Elisa Caldwell Browning, Louise Maertz, Abby Fox Rooney, and Christiana Holmes Tillson. Photo courtesy of Quincy Herald-Whig. Pioneer Women of Quincy: Women’s study club was bold innovation
by Helen Warning
Lucy Parsons (1853-1942)
Lucy Parsons was an activist during the labor movement of the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
Lucy Eldine Parsons was born in Waco, Texas in 1853. She and her husband Albert R. Parsons moved to Chicago in the 1870s. Lucy was one of the first African American women to write against the lynchings and other racial attacks in the South. She and Albert wrote and spoke for radical causes.
They are best known for their support of the labor movement of the late 1800s. Lucy was among the organizers of the attempted strike in 1886 that lead to the bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886 (“The Haymarket Riot”). Albert Parsons, her husband, was one of the four hanged for his alleged involvement in the bombing.
Lucy continued to be active in the radical wing of the labor movement until her death in 1942.
- Ashbaugh, Carolyn. (1976). Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary. Charles H. Kerr (for the Illinois Labor History Society), Chicago.
- Calmer, Alan. (1937) Labor Agitator: The Story of Albert R. Parsons. International Publishers, New York.
- Foner, Philip S., Ed. (1969) The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs. Humanities Press, New York. (first printed in the Knights of Labor, published in Chicago).
- Parsons, Lucy Eldine. (1889) Life of Albert R. Parsons, with Brief history of the Labor Movement in America. Published by the author, Chicago, Illinois.
Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915)
Amanda Berry Smith was born as a slave in Maryland in 1837, the oldest of thirteen children. When Amanda was in her early teens, her father purchased the family’s freedom. Amanda’s first husband died during the Civil War, while serving in an African American military unit.
Amanda had little formal education, but she had a gift for speaking and singing. Her talents led to her nicknames “the Singing Pilgrim” and “God’s Image Carved in Ebony.” During her early thirties, Amanda began in evangelizing in New York City, receiving inspiration at a local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She became a charger member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1875, and was associated with the African American Women’s Clubs.
Before 1880 embarked on a twelve-year missionary trip through Europe, Asia, and Africa. She spent eight years in Liberia and West Africa, establishing churches and temperance societies.
She settled in Chicago in 1893. Amanda raised funds to open an orphan home for African American children. During this time, Harvey, Illinois, was being developed and marketed as a community with high moral, religious, and temperance character. Smith’s purchased property in Harvey in 1895. The orphan’s home opened in Harvey in 1899 and has the distinction of being Illinois’ first orphanage for African American children. Her fundraising efforts allowed the school and home to operate without government assistance. Ida B. Wells, another African American social reformer, served on the Board of Directors of the orphanage. Although Smith retired from orphanage work in 1912 due to illness, dying in Florida in 1915, the home remained open until destroyed by fire in 1918.
- Bartlett, David C., and Larry A. McClellan (1998) “The Final Ministry of Amanda Berry Smith. An Orphanage in Harvey, Illinois, 1895-1918” in Illinois Heritage, vol 1, no. 2, pp. 20-25.
- Smith, Amanda Berry. (1893) An Autobiography, The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist. Meyer & Brother, Publishers, Chicago, IL. (This work has been reprinted at least six times since the original publication.)
- Knupfer, Anne Meis. (1997) Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood, African American Women’s Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago. New York University Press, New York, NY.
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of a slave. The title of her autobiography is an apt description of her life’s work: “Crusade for Justice”. Educated in Holly Springs, her first profession was that of teacher.
In 1884, Ida refused to be intimidated on a train and took the railroad to court over the incident [see excerpt below from Ida’s autobiography about the incedent.] In 1889, Ida Wells became the editor of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. She became nationally known during the 1890s for a series of articles she wrote drawing attention to lynching of African Americans in the American South. In 1892, her book A Red Record delved further into the topic of lynching, presenting detailed statistics of its occurrence. Some in Memphis were not supportive of her views and responded by burning her print shop and threatening to lynch Ida Wells.
Ida moved to Chicago in 1893. She was active in a number of organizations promoting African American civil rights. Her husband, Ferdinand Barnett was the owner of the Chicago newspaper called the Conservator. Barnett founded the Conservator in 1878 and it was probably the first African American newspaper in Illinois. Ida was among those who wrote for the paper. Unfortunately, only scattered issues have been preserved.
Both Ida and Ferdinand supported a variety of organizations promoting social and political reform. Among Ida’s efforts was a protest against the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 for failing to erect a pavilion to honor African American contributions in American history.
Ida was instrumental in the formation of the Negro Fellowship League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the first black female suffrage group in Illinois. She died in 1931. In 1974, her former home on South Martin Luther King Jr Drive in Chicago was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.:
“I secured a school in Shelby County, Tennessee, which paid a better salary and began studying for the examination for city schoolteacher which meant an even larger increase in salary. One day (4 May 1884) while riding back to my school I took a seat in the ladies’ coach of the train as usual. There were no jim crow cars then. But ever since the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill by the United States Supreme Court. There had been efforts all over the South to draw the color line on the railroads.
When the train started and the conductor came along to collect tickets, he took my ticket, then handed it back to me and told me that he couldn’t take my ticket there. I thought that if he didn’t want the ticket I wouldn’t bother about it so went on reading. In a little while when he finished taking tickets, he came back and told me I would have to go in the other car. I refused, saying that the forward car was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car I proposed to stay. He tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth on the back of his hand.
I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggagemen and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out. They were encouraged to do this by the attitude of the white ladies and gentlemen in the car; some of them even stood on the seats so that they could get a good view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand.
By this time the train had stopped at the first station. When I saw that they were determined to drag me into the smoker, which was already filled with colored people and those who were smoking, I said I would get off the train rather than go in – which I did. Strangely, I held on to my ticket all this time, and although the sleeves of my linen duster had been torn out and I had been pretty roughly handled, I had not been hurt physically.
I went back to Memphis and engaged a colored lawyer to bring suit against the railroad for me. After months of delay I found he had been bought off by the road, and as he was the only colored lawyer in town I had to get a white one. This man, Judge Greer, kept his pledge with me and the case was finally brought to trial in the circuit court. Judge Pierce, who was an ex-union soldier from Minnesota, awarded me damages of five hundred dollars. I can see to this day the headlines in the Memphis Appeal announcing DARKY DAMSEL GETS DAMAGES.
The railroad appealed the case to the state’s supreme court, which reversed the findings of the lower court, and I had to pay the costs. Before this was done, the railroad’s lawyer had tried every means in his power to get me to compromise the case, but I indignantly refused. Had I done so, I would have been a few hundred dollars to the good instead of having to pay out over two hundred dollars in court costs.
It was twelve years afterward before I knew why the case had attracted so much attention and was fought so bitterly by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. It was the first case in which a colored plaintiff in the South had appealed to a state court since the replea of the Civil Rights Bill byt the United States Supreme Court. The gist of that decision was that Negroes were not wards of the nation but citizens of the individual states, and should therefore appeal to the state courts for justice instead of to the federal court. The success of my case would have set a precedent which others would doubtless have followed.”
- Wells, Ida B. (1970) Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Negro American Biographies and Autobiographies series, edited by John Hope Franklin. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. (1997) Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 Bedford Books, Boston, MA. [This work contains a copy of Wells’ publication “A Red Record”, and other pamphlets.]
- Thompson, Mildred I. (1990) Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of a Black Woman, 1893-1930. Carlson Pub., Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Townes, Emilie M. (1993) Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope Carlson Pub., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Sarah Withers of Bloomington
Withers Library, Bloomington
SARAH WITHERS 1815-1897
Sarah Withers, the wife of merchant Allen Withers, was an early Bloomington settler, an early friend of Abraham Lincoln, and a civic benefactor. She was also a southern sympathizer, brought up in Lexington, KY, who would write bitterly on 4 May 1861, “This day our nation is to be disgraced by the inauguration of Abe Lincoln as President. How humiliating.”Bloomington was prospering, and merchants like Allen Withers were rejoicing. He and Sarah lived comfortably in their home at the corner of East and Washington Streets, and they were thinking of buying a stately home about 10 blocks to the northwest, on Lee and Locust.They also bought land near Baton Rouge, LA, where they dreamed of going to live as plantation owners. And to develop this land, Allen Withers bought slaves.Although their slave Henry became legally free upon living in Illinois, he stayed with the Withers for the rest of his life, and regarded as one of the family. The Louisiana slaves, however, Allen felt were an economic necessity, and so he was sympathetic to the Southern position of the right to slavery.Bloomington was home to many southern families, but the times and opinions were changing. Even the Withers conservative First Presbyterian Church now had a minister with strong anti-slavery views. Sarah cannot agree with his sermons, writing “I don’t like that man, and there is no use to try.” Allen Withers simply refused to attend. On April 5, she wrote “Everybody is for fight and against the South. Have felt very sad. Went up to Mr. Perry’s. They were really unkind and insulting.In her diary of 13 April 1861, Sarah wrote, “Very exciting news from Fort Sumpter. The War began last night. oh how horrible to think of Fratricidal War, and of this once Glorious nation being rent asunder.”
Abraham Lincoln issued his War Proclamation, asking for 75,000 troops. Allen Withers quickly changed his mind and became a Union man. He attended the city mass meeting and was appointed to a committee headed by Isaac Funk to recruit volunteers for the Army. Sarah continued to suffer. “Have been insulted twice today by persons abusing the south.” And, “I need sympathy, but find I can expect nothing of the kind in this community.”
The war was a national tragedy and a personal one. Sarah’s adored husband died very suddenly in 1864. Sarah put aside her wartime bitterness towards Bloomington and dedicated herself to a life of philanthropy. The land which was the site of the Withers’ first home was donated to the Library Association. Withers Library was dedicated in 1887 and served the city until a new Bloomington Public Library was built on Olive St. in 1977.
Sarah’s daughter Jessamine, mother of two, died young. In her will, Sarah donated her home on W. Locust St. and one of her farms to found the Jessamine Withers Home for the Elderly, which remained in operation until 1963.
Withers Park, part of the property which contained the library, is still a site for downtown concerts and is the home of the Trotter Fountain, a memorial to the family of Sarah’s close friend Georgina Trotter. Georgina and Sarah Raymond completed the final fund-raising for the Withers Library. All three women left their mark on Bloomington.
- Withers, Sarah R., “Diary”, 1 January 1860-20 May 1861. MCHS Library (transcription) and MCHS Archives (original)
- Schlenker, Alice. “The heretics”, 1985, ms. MCHS Archives
- Portrait of Sarah Withers and image of Withers Library. MCHS Archives, Photograph Collection
- 1881 library card. MCHS Archives