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Making history: Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, 1855-1944

In honor of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), here is a story from Bureau County’s past that is pertinent to both.

One of the early graduates of Princeton Township High School was a young African-American woman named Elizabeth Lindsay who went on to become a national leader in advancing the rights and opportunities for black women in American society.

Born in Peoria in 1855, Lindsay came to Princeton in the years following the Civil War.  Her parents, Thomas and Sophia Jane Lindsay, were determined she would get a good education -- denied to black children in Peoria. They were encouraged to take her to Wheaton where she would be able to attend an integrated school. Enroute to Wheaton, they stopped for the night in Princeton, guests of a local black family, the Henry Christeys.

Mr. Christey suggested the Lindsays leave Elizabeth with his family, so she could go to Princeton schools, first at the Union School and then at the new Princeton Township High School. Elizabeth graduated from PHS in 1873 and delivered a commencement address titled, “The Past and Future of the Negro.” It was reprinted in the Bureau County Republican and in Chicago and Peoria papers. 

Here is an excerpt from her remarkable speech:

“Give the African race 200 years of freedom, respect and education instead of 200 years of slavery, prejudice and ignorance, and they will attain to an equal point of civilization and intelligence with that of any other people. During the rebellion, the slaves were willing to fight and die if need be for an imperfect freedom; yet it was very hard to persuade the north to give them a fair chance for even that. Give us everywhere the same privileges that we enjoy in this community, surrounded as we are by the associations connected with the memory of the immortal Lovejoy, who worked and pleaded for our race long before there was any prospect of obtaining freedom, then — after 200 years of such privileges, judge us.” 

After graduating from PHS, Elizabeth Lindsay became a school teacher, with posts in Keokuk, Iowa; Louisville, Ky.; Quincy; and New Albany, Ind. She married Dr. William Davis in Peoria in 1885, and they moved to Chicago in 1893. There she became a state and national leader in the Colored Women’s Club Movement.  "Lifting as They Climb," her book on the history of the National Association of Colored Women, was published in 1933. She also founded the Phyllis Wheatley Club, a settlement house for black women in Chicago, collaborated on projects with Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist, and at the invitation of W.E.B. DuBois, wrote about women’s suffrage for the NAACP magazine, The Crisis.

Elizabeth Lindsay Davis championed the rights and contributions of African-American women in an era when being black and female meant you had virtually no standing in American society. Yet in her speaking, writing and doing, she made history from the start – Bureau County history, black history, women’s history, American history.

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