John J. Bird became the first African-American trustee of the University of Illinois more than a decade before the school even had any Black students.
Bird’s tombstone in Oak Ridge Cemetery doesn’t mention that distinction, but its text does include an unusual note: the stone was “erected by the 47th General Assembly of Illinois.” And newspaper stories show that two lawmakers from Springfield – Reps. Thomas Lyon and James Morris (both White) – were among the half-dozen speakers at Bird’s memorial service.
None of the stories or other records say why Bird was accorded such unusual recognition. His term on the university board – Bird was a college trustee for about a decade – may have been part of the reason, but the brief accounts of the grave dedication don’t mention it. The articles describe Bird only as “a colored janitor at the state house.”
What also went unsaid was that Bird had been prominent in African-American organizations statewide for more than four decades, a role he parlayed with political activism to try to push Illinois Republicans to support Black civil rights. Even though the Springfield race riot took place only four years before Bird’s death, African-Americans were an important part of Republicans’ constituency in 1912. So it made electoral sense for the GOP to memorialize J.J. Bird.
Bird got his first statewide recognition at age 29, when he was elected police magistrate – another first – in his hometown of Cairo. “In the Cairo municipal election on Tuesday, John Wood was elected Mayor, and J.J. Bird (colored) received a majority of the votes for Police Magistrate,” Springfield’s Illinois State Journal reported on April 17, 1873. (As a result of that election, Bird was often referred to as “Judge Bird” in later years.)
“Illinois History & Lincoln Collections,” a blog connected to the University of Illinois Library, discussed Bird’s life in a 2018 post:
Alongside others like William T. Scott, his fellow co-editor of the Cairo Gazette, and Reverend Thomas Strothers, Bird pressed issues like disparities in education and successfully campaigned for the election of several other African American officials. This caused a transformation in Cairo from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold.
In August 1873, Bird tried to intercede with Gov. John Beveridge to delay the execution of a Black man convicted of murdering a White steamboat officer in Cairo. Bird thought he’d secured a 30-day stay, creating “quite an excitement … among the colored friends of the prisoner,” according to a report the Journal republished. Beveridge disavowed the deal, though, and the prisoner was hanged on schedule.
In late 1873 or early 1874, Beveridge nominated Bird to become a trustee of what was then called Illinois Industrial University, the predecessor of today’s U of I. Again, what prompted the nomination is something of a mystery, although another U of I Library study of Bird comments that Beveridge probably was rewarding Bird “for his political efforts in behalf of the state Republican Party.”
Beveridge didn’t put much, if any, emphasis on Bird’s race when nominating him. In fact, the Journal, Springfield’s Republican newspaper, gleefully pointed out that a number of Democratic state senators didn’t realize Bird was Black when they voted to confirm him in February 1874:
The Bourbon Democrats have been sore wroth for a few days by reason of having unconsciously voted to confirm the nomination of the Governor of Mr. J.J. Bird as Trustee of Industrial University at Champaign.
Mr. Bird is a colored man, a conductor of the Pullman Sleeping Car Company on the Illinois Central Railway. He resides at Cairo, and has the respect even of that Democratic Egyptian country. He was nominated by the Governor just as if he was a common man. In the due course of business he was confirmed, and that too – direful calamity! – in part by such good old Democratic votes as Senators Archer, Casey and others of the same stripe.
Bird’s term as trustee was a struggle. According to the U of I Library:
Bird served on the Board until 1883. The Cairo Daily Bulletin claimed that Bird “was treated with great disrespect by the white members of the board because he was black, and was actually driven out of the board by Republican ostracism.” He nonetheless remained “faithful to the Republican party, for which he has done much service and from which he had received no kindness or reward.”
It’s probably a sign of the racism Bird confronted that it wasn’t until 1887, four years after Bird was off the board, that the college admitted its first Black student.
At some point, Bird moved from Cairo to Springfield, where he continued to advocate for both civil rights and the Republican Party. One of his regular associates was the Rev. James H. Magee (1839-1912), a local minister and for a time president of the Ambidexter Institute, a Tuskegee Institute-style trade school for African-American youths.
Like Bird, Magee was a Republican who had a patronage job – as a messenger in the printing office – with Illinois Secretary of State James Rose. Rose, age 61, died suddenly May 29, 1912, and Magee died seven hours later. Magee’s death was due to a heart attack the newspapers said was brought on by the news of Rose’s death. The Illinois State Journal’s version:
Dr. McGee (sic), who was colored, spent the day in pursuance of his ordinary duties. There probably was none of the state house attaches better known, for in delivering printed matter and proofs to the various state departments, he became to be known by all.
When he was told of the death of Mr. Rose by Printer Expert Williamson about 4 o’clock, McGee sat down and, catching his side as if in pain, said:
“I don’t see how I am going to get over this. He was my good friend.”
John J. Bird, in turn, died three days later. The Illinois State Register’s brief obituary mentioned none of Bird’s accomplishments in life, but it did claim to see a pattern in his death.
Bird’s death makes the second attributed indirectly to the death of Secretary of State James A. Rose. He is said to have brooded continuously since the sudden death on Wednesday night of Dr. J.H. McGee, who died soon after the secretary, supposedly of grief.
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