A section of Lovejoy’s last printing press, which was thrown into the Missisisippi River on the night he was murdered.

Alton Residents Have Long History of Fighting Racism


John J. Dunphy

Originally published in the 6/13/20 eddition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL.

Some area residents are surprised that Alton has been the scene of so many Black Lives Matter protests. Well, I’m not. Our city has always had residents who are willing to devote their time — and even jeopardize their lives — in the fight against racism. Altonians who are protesting the murder of George Floyd are simply continuing this long, proud tradition.

All of you are surely familiar with Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist newspaper editor who was murdered by a mob in 1837 while defending his printing press. His death invigorated the abolitionist movement and even inspired John Brown to dedicate his life to destroying slavery in the United States. But how familiar are you with Alton’s other abolitionists?

Thaddeus Hurlbut served as the associate editor of the Alton Observer, Lovejoy’s newspaper, and remained with his friend’s bullet-riddled corpse when the mob broke into the Godfrey-Gilman warehouse to destroy Lovejoy’s final printing press. Hurlbut’s second Upper Alton home, located where Calvary Baptist Church now stands, served as an Underground Railroad station.

Massachusetts expatriates Elijah and Sarah Dimmock purchased what is now the Dunphy Building in 1840 and made it into an Underground Railroad station. Harboring fugitive slaves in direction violation of the law put a tremendous strain on their marriage. When Sarah Dimmock’s sister dropped by to visit, she would often find Sarah crying with fear. She would point to a windowless room behind the kitchen and tell her sister, “He’s got one in there.”

The Rocky Fork settlement in Godfrey was a community of fugitive slaves. Its residents assisted and defended runaways, who were often pursued by armed slave-catchers, as they journeyed north. Don Alonzo Spaulding, a Vermont native who detested slavery, hired Rocky Fork residents to work at his sawmill. Harry Spaulding, his brother, also resided in the area. Harry served as justice of the peace, and his presence provided a measure of security for the Rocky Fork community.

Major Charles Hunter, a New York expatriate, settled in our area and founded the community of Hunterstown, which still bears his name. Hunter was an abolitionist as well as an Underground Railroad conductor. He made certain that free blacks and fugitive slaves knew they were welcome to settle in Hunterstown. He also made certain that slave-catchers knew they were not welcome within its borders.

Like Lovejoy and Hurlbut, Hunter served as a co-founder of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society at a convention in Upper Alton on October 26–28, 1837. The convention took place in Hurlbut’s first home, which was the Old Rock House. When Lovejoy was murdered just two weeks later, he was buried in a field in Hunterstown. Charles Hunter, who had provided the abolitionist editor with a house upon his arrival in Alton, now provided him with a grave.

Hunter in 1842 agreed to serve as the candidate of the Liberty party for governor of Illinois. He received only 906 votes, but remained a loyal member of this party of abolitionists. Hurlbut and Dimmock also supported the Liberty party. U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, who lived in Alton from 1849 to 1863, wrote the Thirteenth Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery in our country.

When the city of Alton mandated segregated public schools in 1897, black residents such as Scott Bibb and Harry B. Coates waged an eleven-year battle for integration in Alton schools. Although their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, the fight for integrated schools was taken up by a new generation of activists in the 1940s and 1950s.

Remember when the Ku Klux Klan held a cross-burning in Fosterburg in 1992? Area activists held a Unity Rally on Lincoln-Douglas Square to proclaim our region’s commitment to justice and equality for all.

The participants in these Black Lives Matter rallies are the ideological descendants of these long-ago abolitionists and civil rights activists. They’ve earned our respect and deserve our support.

John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947.

CORRECTION: The Dimmocks arrived in Alton in 1840. They bought the building at 16 East Broadway — the present-day Dunphy Building — in 1847, not in 1840 as I stated in this column. I regret the error.

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.