First African-American juror in Sangamon County

The first black person to serve on a jury in Sangamon County may have been Thomas Flynn, a barber, on March 18, 1873.

Flynn wasn’t the first African-American called to jury service in the county, but an earlier attempt – on July 12, 1870, only four months after ratification of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that African-Americans could vote – ended when white jury members refused to serve on the same panel with an unidentified black man.

No details are available about the cases themselves. It was the involvement of black jurors that led the Illinois State Register to publish brief items. (The Register was the Democratic newspaper in Springfield, and its post-Civil War coverage of news involving African-Americans, especially anything involving crime or politics, often had racist overtones; note the language in both items.) Here is the Register’s account of the 1870 incident.

FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. – Today is a big one for negro-phobists. The first colored juror was summoned in Springfield. A case was to be tried before Justice Wood (apparently Justice of the Peace Alonzo W. Wood [1816-96] – ed.), and the officer in charge had managed, after much worry, to get five white jurymen on the bench. For the sixth he brought in a negro, whereupon the five jumped up and fled. The officer, appalled at the result of his operation, told the darkey to go likewise, and again set himself at work to get a jury.

The Register’s report on Flynn’s jury service was even shorter.

COLORED JUROR. – The novel spectacle was presented in the circuit court this morning, of a colored man occupying the jury box. Thomas Flynn is the name of the dusky cuss called upon to decide grave questions liable to be presented for his consideration. Such sights are common enough in some sections of our country, but are rarely witnessed in our midst.

Thomas Flynn, born in Missouri about 1842, apparently came to Springfield in the late 1860s – he first appears in the 1869-70 city directory. At that point, he lived on the northwest corner of 12th and Mason streets and was the junior partner in the Beard and Flynn barbershop at Seventh and Washington streets.

Flynn changed partners and shop locations at least twice before he and his family moved to Chicago in 1884. However, he, his wife Sarah and their daughter Mary continued to live at the same address on Mason Street, apparently a rented home, for their entire stay in Springfield.

Flynn was active in local politics, African-American fraternal organizations and civil rights activities. In 1879, he helped organize the Springfield black community’s observance of Emancipation Day and was elected an officer of an African-American Masonic lodge.

African-American Republicans unsuccessfully supported Flynn for alderman from the First Ward, the center of black population and African-American political influence, in 1881, and he was elected a delegate to the city Republican Party convention in 1877, 1879 and 1882.

Flynn turned over his interest in his barbershop to his last partner, Thomas Goins, in March 1884 and moved to Chicago. Because “Thomas Flynn” is a common name (there were at least three whites of the same name in Springfield when Flynn lived here), it’s impossible to determine for certain when he died. However, a black barber with the same name, spouse and birth year is listed as dying in Chicago in 1914. That man is buried in Mt. Glenwood Cemetery, according to Cook County death records.

Research credit: The two Illinois State Register items about African-American jurors were originally reported in The Life and Death of Gus Reed: A Story of Race and Justice in Illinois during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Thomas Bahde (2014). Reed, a Springfieldian sentenced to prison for theft, died shackled to the door of his cell at the Joliet state prison in 1878.

The Life and Death of Gus Reed gives a grimly detailed look at Springfield attitudes about crime, civil rights and African-Americans in the mid-19th century; it is well worth reading by anyone interested in a deeper understanding of local history.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

 

 

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