I was first introduced to Governor Richard Yates of Illinois as the man who gave Ulysses S. Grant his first command at the start of the Civil War. It was his appointment by Yates to be the Colonel of the 21st Illinois that put Grant on the road to becoming General-In-Chief of the entire U. S. Army, and the architect of the campaigns that finally won the war for the Union.
So, Richard Yates played a pivotal role in the nation’s history from the beginning of the Civil War.
But he also played another role that’s much less well known, but which has great symbolic resonance not only for the Civil War era, but also for our own times. Just before leaving office in 1865, Yates signed two pardons that marked the new era that was dawning in the country.
In 1853 Illinois joined several other Northern states in enacting a “Black Code.” This law prohibited any black person from outside the state from remaining in the state for more than ten days, on pain of being imprisoned, fined $50, and deported from the state. If they couldn’t pay the fine, they could be sold into servitude for some specified period of time. I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the most influential sponsor of the legislation was John A. Logan, a Democratic politician who would become a successful Union general under Grant.
The Black Laws remained popular in Illinois throughout the war, and were only repealed in early 1865.
That’s the backdrop to an article that appeared in the April 22, 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly. It recounted an event involving Governor Yates that took place while the Illinois Black Laws were still in effect. Here’s that article:
THE LAST OFFICIAL ACT OF GOVERNOR YATES.
A FRIEND in Illinois sends a story of Senator, late Governor, YATES of that State, which should become historical in his honor.
By the “black laws” of Illinois, lately repealed, free negroes, or, as the law expressed it, “free people of color” when found in the State were liable to arrest and sale. Under this law two persons were arrested about two years since, and convicted of the crime of being “people of color.” They were sold, one for fifty-five and the other for ninety-nine years. A prominent lawyer in the town (the names are given us) believing the law to be unconstitutional appealed the case, becoming security for costs, to the Supreme Court, which declared the law, constitutional, and that the convicted persons who had been temporarily released by the lawyer’s action should be returned to the buyers. The offenders, however, had meanwhile left the State, and the lawyer found himself liable for a large sum.
He reflected for some time, and finally repaired to Governor YATES, who was about vacating the chair. The lawyer presented his case to the Governor’s sagacity and humanity, and at the close of the interview emerged with a radiant face. Meeting a fellow lawyer who was familiar with the circumstances, he said to him, cheerfully,
“Well, it’s finished.”
“The men are pardoned,” said the lawyer. “How pardoned?” asked his friend.
The lawyer looked at him for a moment while a grim smile passed over his face, and then answered,
“Pardoned for being black.”
This was the last official act of Governor YATES, and Illinois has done wisely in bidding him go up higher.
I fully agree with Harper’s that Governor Yates’ last act in office does him honor.
In light of the growing list of unarmed young black men who have been shot and killed by police, or even by citizens armed with pistols and “stand your ground” immunity, I think we could use a Governor Yates today.
The crime of “being black” is apparently still on the books.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin