February 24, 2010

Celebrating 175 Years: Racine elected its first African-American in 1887

Excerpt and Photos provided by Oak Clearing Farm & Museum

Peter D. Thomas, born into slavery in 1847, was the first elected Black in Racine County and possibly the state.

Elected coroner in 1887, Thomas served a two-year uneventful term in office. It was his only excursion into politics.

Today, his headstone is tucked away in Mound Cemetery, marking the grave of a man whose 73 years were studded with service to his country.

Born on a Tennessee plantation, Thomas (right) was 14 years old when the Civil War began and watched the fortification of Island ten, five miles from his home, and the battle in which Union troops won the island from defending Confederate forces in October of 1862.

When told that slaves were “freed,” Thomas joined the Union forces as a servant (called a batman) for a Beloit lieutenant.

Thomas accompanied the lieutenant back to Beloit when the officer had been seriously wounded. There he did farm work until he enlisted in a Black infantry unit in 1864.

Thomas took part in two battles before leaving the service in 1865. Returning to Beloit, he attended high school and one year of college. From there he went to Chicago and finally in 1883 moved to Racine, where he lived the rest of his life until he died of accidental gas asphyxiation in his home.

Thomas was elected during a turbulent election year when the Knights of Labor were a powerful force in the Democratic Party. He was nominated by acclamation.

The Republican candidate opposing him was the incumbent. However, all but three Democrats were elected. Newspaper accounts of the day mention nothing of a controversial nature concerning Thomas’s acceptance after his win of 2,430 to 1,422 for his opponent.

After his term as coroner, Thomas worked for the First National Bank and as custodian of the Court House.

At the end of his life, according to a 1953 Journal-Times article, he was frequently “to be found in the GAR room of the Building (Memorial Hall) after its completion reliving Civil War experiences with other old soldiers.”

It would take Racine residents 81 years to elect its second African-American politician. Lloyd Jackson, who was Racine's first black principal, was elected to the City Council in 1968. Jackson (right) died in 2001.


  1. I picked up two other Racine newspapers yesterday. The Racine Mirror and the Insiderer Newspaper.
    both had wonderful stories about the Black History in Racine.

    It appears that the Racine history books overlooked the fact that there were black faces among the pioneers of Racine.

    Ruby West Jackson and Walter McDonald point out some of Racine's Black history in their wonderful book FINDING FREEDOM 2007.

  2. Just where is and who is this Oak Clearing Archives person? Whom ever has a lot of stuff on Racine history, Great story!

  3. Thanks for posting this interesting bit of Racine History!

  4. Good read...thanks for the article.

  5. Seven the Messenger check out racineinsider.blogspot.com black history edition.

  6. Is there a Black Hall of Fame??

    I remember Lloyd Jackson as being among a number of fine Black educators in Racine.

    Two other great Black teachers that should not be forgotten are--
    Nancy Jagodinski and Orby Moss.

    When other teachers at Washington Jr. High School treated me like a misfit these two educators treated me like a person. That was rare in the authoritarian teaching style of the era.

  7. Lolita Moody2/16/2014 10:27 PM

    Another of Racine's first Black teachers was Stella Starks.