Yesterday, the University of Chicago announced plans to remove a bronze plaque honoring Stephen Douglas from Hutchinson Commons. Douglas, an Illinois senator, was one of the leading Americans of the mid 19th century, most famous today for his series of debates with Abraham Lincoln. In 1856, Douglas donated land in the South Side where the original University of Chicago was built. In a letter announcing the plaque’s removal, President Zimmer noted that Douglas “profited from his wife’s ownership of a Mississippi plantation where Black people were enslaved.” That is certainly true, but Zimmer’s single sentence only tells part of a much more complicated, intimate story.
For the past several months, I have studied Stephen Douglas’s involvement with slavery in Mississippi, using records from the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center and funding from the Strive Foundation. Douglas’s holdings in the South have never been unknown to historians, but they have been consistently overlooked. The web of financial connections, inheritance laws, and land disputes is difficult to unravel, but through it all, slavery is an overt and constant focal point. Contrary to what Zimmer’s letter might imply, Douglas did not benefit at an abstracted distance from plantation slavery. He personally witnessed and received information about the lives and hardships of the human beings he controlled, and whose labors helped fund his political career.
Douglas gained control of a 3,000 acre Mississippi plantation in 1848 when his father-in-law Robert Martin died. Martin had intended to give the plantation to Douglas as a wedding gift, but Douglas turned him down, citing the political challenges that owning slaves might create for a northern politician like himself. But when Martin died, he left the estate to Douglas’s wife Martha, with Douglas receiving a third of its annual income in exchange for managing it. When Martha died in childbirth four years later, the plantation and its roughly 100 slaves passed to Douglas’s young sons, with the senator as their guardian.
Douglas was never an especially active manager, leaving most tasks to his hired overseer James Strickland. But during his visits down south, Douglas appears to have paid particular notice to the estate’s enslaved workforce. While in Mississippi in 1858, Douglas wrote to his second wife Adele that the “Negroes are in good condition and entirely comfortable,” going on to describe the acceptable quality of their homes and clothing. In the same letter, he claims that they “appear better than any I have seen on the other plantations.” Douglas’s choice to discuss enslaved people with his wife and to compare their conditions with others hints at some acknowledgement of their centrality in his business and a possible desire to distinguish his actions from comparatively less humane southerners.
Information on enslaved people’s lives also made up much of the information Douglas received in updates from his overseer Strickland. For instance, in an 1849 letter Strickland described an outbreak of sickness at the plantation that killed “one little child” and left an enslaved man named Stamford “as near dying as any person I ever saw to not die.” It went on to note that “Alford is yet in the wood,” a situation Strickland attributes to Alford’s cooperation with “mean white folks” who trade with the plantation’s black population. These stories and those from other Strickland letters mean that Douglas received regular evidence of the individuality and humanity of the people he profited from.
In some of his letters, Strickland asked Douglas to address or avoid specific traumas inflicted by the slave system. In 1853, the overseer requested Douglas’s help in reuniting a family that was divided by Robert Martin’s death. While Douglas controlled the siblings Joe and Julia, their two sisters and 13 nieces and nephews were owned by Robert Martin’s sister in Georgia, who planned to sell them. Strickland wrote to Douglas that “your negroes also begs for you to buy them,” but the senator made no reply before the family was sold off. In 1857, when Douglas made plans to sell the plantation and move his slaves to more fertile land, Strickland relayed the intense worry this created among the estate’s workforce. He wrote that the enslaved people “fear they will be broke up and moved,” specifying that individuals like “Driver Joe” are terrified of being separated from family members held on other local plantations. Douglas still proceeded with the move. At the very least, these emotional letters reveal that Douglas received clear and personal depictions of his income’s human cost.
Because the pandemic interrupted my access to the Douglas papers, these stories come from the few letters I have photos of or could access from previously published works. But even these incomplete fragments show that Douglas did more than just profit from afar off his wife’s enslaved labor. Despite distancing himself from it, Douglas controlled the plantation, and knew directly what the dynamics and consequences of its slave system were. Though Zimmer’s letter argues that Douglas had “no connection” to the present University of Chicago, dying three decades before it opened, John Boyer’s University of Chicago: A History and research by the the Reparations at UChicago Working Group have described extensive financial and symbolic ties between Douglas’s old university and the present day school. Working toward the “stronger, more inclusive University” Zimmer aspires to will require an honest and complete reckoning with this past.