Meet James Henry Lewis, a free Black man who sought freedom for all

2/23/2022 cbw

By Christopher Schnell and Michelle Miller
ALPLM Manuscripts Department

The ALPLM’s files are filled with countless stories of people who were never famous but still lived amazing lives. One is James Henry Lewis, who was born into slavery and died a respected lawyer more than a century later.

James Henry Lewis around 1940

Lewis was born in Virginia, probably on Sept. 1, 1840, although other years are sometimes listed in the records. His father was a free man of color, a blacksmith and veteran of the War of 1812. He managed to purchase the freedom of his family, including his son. Young Lewis joined his father in a horse-trading business that took him to Louisiana, among other places in the South. Eventually, though, Lewis moved to Palatine, Ill.

When the Civil War began, Lewis and other Black men were barred from serving in the military, but they could assist as civilians. According to his obituary, Lewis volunteered as a “hostler” (someone who tends to horses) for the 4th Illinois Cavalry. After the Emancipation Proclamation cleared the way for Black soldiers, Lewis enlisted on Oct. 13, 1863, in the 1st Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent) which later became the 3rd Cavalry, United States Colored Troops (USCT).

The 1st Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent) bringing in Confederate prisoners, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Dec. 19, 1863

His regiment saw action around Vicksburg and Memphis during 1864 and early 1865, ranging widely on raids into Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. According to his compiled service record, he enlisted as a private and was appointed corporal on Sept. 21, 1865. His obituary notes he left service in 1866 as a sergeant.

After the war, Lewis lived in Chicago and participated in veteran activities, including as a member and officer in the Grand Army of the Republic’s historically Black “John Brown” Post #50. He was also involved in the GAR at the state administrative level, serving as Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General of the GAR Illinois Department. He often traveled to Springfield to participate in state and national meetings of the GAR. Lewis studied law at what would become Chicago-Kent College of Law and was admitted to the bar in 1893 and he practiced in Chicago. Lewis was also a Mason, a trustee at Quinn Chapel AME Church, and a Sunday school superintendent.

Lewis died Aug. 25, 1944 at approximately 104 years old.

Chicago's John Brown Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (courtesy of New York Public Library)

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