Watchman, Tell Us: John J. Bird and Black Politics in Post-Civil War Illinois (Paperback)

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Watchman, Tell Us: John J. Bird and Black Politics in Post-Civil War Illinois By Wayne T. Pitard Cover Image
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The most influential Black leader in 19th century southern Illinois

This key biography of John J. Bird unveils the forgotten story of a remarkable Black political figure in post-Civil War Illinois. Emerging as a leader in Cairo, the city with Illinois’ second-largest Black community, Bird played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights within the state, also becoming Illinois’ first Black elected judge and first Black trustee of the University of Illinois. Watchman, Tell Us deftly examines Bird’s lifetime of service and advocacy for a vulnerable community and the ways in which he successfully advocated for and protected voting rights, educational opportunity, and public access for the Black residents of southern Illinois.

Bird arrived in Cairo at age twenty during the Civil War to aid the 2,000 Black refugees from the South living there. By 1870, he had established the city’s substantial Black Republican wing, providing the Black community with unprecedented political influence in this hostile, majority white, Democratic town. Under Bird’s leadership, the Black Republicans pressed for policies that improved the well-being of the African American population, including the early establishment of a Black public school, the rise of an integrated judicial system, and the ability to access public and private businesses. Bird became influential across Illinois as a judge and university trustee, a leader in the Black convention movement, and a significant newspaper editor in Cairo and Springfield. When Bird died in 1912, the nation he loved had once again betrayed its Black citizens, and it appeared that most of the achievements he had fought for had collapsed. But the work of Bird and the other civil rights workers of the nineteenth century created the foundation upon which the movements of the twentieth century could stand.

About the Author


Wayne T. Pitard is professor emeritus of the department of religion at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is author of Ancient Damascus: A Historical Study of the Syrian City-State; The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume II: KTU 1.3-1.4: Text, Translation and Commentary; and numerous academic articles.


Product Details
ISBN: 9780809339464
ISBN-10: 0809339463
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
Publication Date: September 9th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English