A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Visit one of our distribution partners to find a copy near you. Click here >>

When John and Mary Jane Richardson Jones settled in Chicago in 1845, it was just seven decades after Jean Baptiste DuSable became the city’s first non-Indigenous settler.

With only $3 in their possession, the couple moved from downstate Alton, Ill., with their baby and soon built wealth in the burgeoning city. John Jones opened a tailor shop on Dearborn Street between Harrison and Polk streets, becoming one of the wealthiest Black men in the United States, with a fortune valued at up to $100,000 (worth $3.2 million in 2021).

When Dr. Bruce Purnell, a descendent of the Joneses and the executive director of The Love-More Movement, Inc., first learned about his family’s story, he was 19 years old. As he looked through the family documents and photos passed down to him, the story of John and Mary Jane Richardon Jones became more and more surreal. 

“I’m still processing it really,” said Purnell, who is now 53 years old. “The fact that he was a station master for the Underground Railroad and an organizer of the Civil War and assistant pallbearer in [President Abraham] Lincoln’s funeral. Wow, I didn’t know any of this. Putting it together, I actually got to see the story, like, oh. This is real. This is who he is.”

From the 1840s to the 1860s, the Joneses used their influence to fight against the Illinois Black Codes that prohibited Black people from voting, required them to carry a “certificate of freedom” pay a $1,000 bond to stay in the state, and even denied them the right to gather in groups of three or more without the risk of being jailed or beaten.

Even in the city’s earliest days, Black people in Chicago helped create the city we know today. From abolition to the fight for political office, their work helped to establish and sustain Black political power.

But during the time of slavery, this political power looked different — it took on the form of abolition and protection.

You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage EditionVisit reshapethenarrative.com to find a copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones. 

Quinn Chapel, an A.M.E. church then located at State and Madison in the heart of the city, served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Chicago was often one of the last stops before Detroit and Canada.

“Once the church got started, one of the first ministries of the church was a vigilance society where men of the community got together to patrol, to make sure that folks weren’t getting snatched up and taken back into slavery had they escaped, or free people without their papers being snatched up [illegally],” said Will Miller, Quinn Chapel’s historic preservation chair.

At the time, Black people had to carry certificates of freedom that said they were free. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act denied enslaved people a right to trial by jury and required citizens in the state to help in apprehending them. And in 1853, Illinois responded to the Fugitive Slave Act by prohibiting all Black people from entering the state.

At Quinn, a group of Black women abolitionists who worked at the church were referred to as “The Big Four,” and Mary Jane Richardson Jones was one of them. The daughter of a free Black blacksmith, she married John Jones in 1841. He was the son of a free mixed woman and a German man, and had fled his home state of North Carolina because his mother feared his father would enslave him.

Exterior view of Quinn Chapel. Published on page 21 in pamphlet for Illinois centennial celebration and exhibit : August 13th, 14th, 15th, 1918, Wendell Phillips High School. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

But even with their privilege and wealth, the Joneses still were not safe in Chicago.

“If a free Black person in Chicago, [even] someone of John and Mary Jane Jones’ stature, didn’t have the freedom papers with them on any given day, it could be disastrous for them,” said John Russick, senior vice president of the Chicago History Museum.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, more Black people migrated to Chicago and their population reached nearly 4,000 people in 1870, exponentially rising to 15,000 by 1890. Before Black men received the legal right to vote in 1870, and the passing of local anti-discrimination laws in the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885, Black people expanded their power by collaborating with white politicians, explained Claire Hartfield, educator and author of “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919.”

“Black leaders put in a ton of time and strategy behind the scenes collecting petitions and talking to people around the state, to try to get a groundswell to get rid of those kinds of laws,” Hartfield said. “They did all the work — they didn’t get the credit.”

In 1898, Archibald Carey Sr. became pastor of Quinn Chapel. He campaigned for the Republican party and got close with William Thompson, who would eventually become Chicago’s mayor in 1915. Through his relationships, Carey later became the city’s chief examiner of claims and a civil service commissioner, where he made sure the city hired more Black police and punished officers who unfairly treated Black people.

“I think the thing that often gets overlooked with communities who are on the margins of political power is that it’s not that they don’t have any political power. They have influence,” Russick said. “With real population growth comes real political power, and when you see someone like John Jones have influence, [it’s] because in part he’s a successful businessman, he does hold elected office in Chicago and he is part of a movement to change America’s relationship with enslaved people.”

In the 1910s, Black political power continued to grow with the expansion of women’s voting rights. “Just like today, Black women carried things on their back,” Hartfield said.

American journalist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells (1862 - 1931), 1920. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Portrait of Oscar Stanton De Priest, 1915. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

In 1913, Illinois women gained limited suffrage to vote for president and in some local elections. The famed Ida B. Wells took advantage of that opportunity by encouraging Black women to use their voting power. She had created the Alpha Suffrage Club earlier that year, and the group used a grassroots approach in knocking on doors and getting Black women registered to vote. Wells attributes their effort to getting Oscar Stanton De Priest, Chicago’s first Black alderman, elected to the City Council in 1914.

“The women who joined were extremely interested when I showed them that we could use our vote for the advantage of ourselves and our race,” Wells wrote in her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice.”

Since the election of De Priest, Chicago has seen a continued rise in Black political representation. As Dr. Calvin White Jr. said in a recent Black History Month keynote, “Before there is Barack Obama, there is De Priest.”

Black trailblazers in Chicago paved the way for the country to see its first Black president, and this political power was established as the city’s Black community was still growing — long before the Great Migration started in 1916 and before Chicago’s Black population would double before 1940. Yet, this legacy of Black political activism and organizing is often unknown and is something Purnell, the descendant of the Joneses, said should be our current foundation, especially as he looks toward the future and to those who will continue to build his family’s legacy.

“As we talk about telling our own story and changing the narrative, where’s the foundation of that? The foundation can’t come through our oppressor as we tell our story,” Purnell said. “I want [my grandson Kannon] to know who he is and that this is about liberation.”


Kannon Purnell, age 7, tells us about his family’s abolitionist roots.  He is the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists, John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones. Visit reshapethenarrative.com for a behind-the-scenes look at The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition cover shoot.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.