The History Of Slavery In Illinois: Part III

In part two of our series on the history of slavery in Illinois, we continued our discussion on slavery during the colonial period. During this time, Illinois was called Illinois Country, and included parts of Missouri and Wisconsin, all of which were under the control of New France. We talked about the many punishments that slaves — and their masters — were subject to when various infractions were committed. We also discussed the limitations of slaves as “property.”

Today we’ll finish up our discussion on Code Noir, the set of laws that governed slavery in Illinois in the early 1700s. 

Slave masters had sole discretion over whether or not to free slaves, but there were other factors at work. For example, we previously mentioned that a slave owner who impregnated a slave must marry the slave. This would result in the freeing of both the slave and the slave’s children. A slave’s master must be at least 20 years of age before they could legally free the slave — but only with parental permission. A 25-year-old master can do so even without parental permission.

Slaves were legally allowed many of the rights to which freedmen were entitled — but only when their masters transferred those rights. For example, slave owners could delegate a slave to serve as executor of their will upon the owner’s death. They could also ask slaves to tutor their children. In either of these circumstances, the slaves who were granted these rights would also be freed at the time of their master’s death.

The law also guaranteed that any slaves or freed slaves living in New France were subjects of France no matter where they were born. So long as they were free, they had the same rights as any other citizen — by law, if not in practice.

An anonymous history buff who also works for the Douglas Lipsky law firm said, “Freed slaves still lived a hard life. Not everyone accepted that they were free. Racism pervaded society during this time period. The laws were far more strict regarding freed slaves. The reality was that they could be placed right back into slavery or even into indentured servitude by random change or by breaking a random law. It was tough.”

The last thing you should know about all fines and fees associated with broken rules and laws in Code Noir is that the majority of this revenue went straight to the French royal administration. However, about a third of that revenue would be pumped back into the local economy — it went to the hospital in that jurisdiction.

These laws were in effect until Great Britain assimilated the territory after the French and Indian War in 1763. You might even feel that Code Noir was completely unnecessary — because in 1763, only about 900 slaves lived there. When the French escaped from the region, they took 300 of those slaves along with them.

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