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Molly Crusen Bishop: Thomas Harris Lindsay was a Peoria pioneer

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Thomas Harris Lindsay was born in McConnelsburg, Pennsylvania, in August of 1830, and later became one of Peoria’s first black citizens. His obituary says he came to Peoria when he was only a boy of 7 years old.

Peoria had a population around 1,400 citizens in 1840, of which eight were African Americans, making him one of the original eight. Tom’s life is intriguing, mysterious, and amazingly accomplished in a time when life was extremely difficult for black citizens in Peoria.

One of Tom Lindsay’s many mysteries is with whom he came to Peoria and who his parents were. Peoria city directories from the 1850s list Tom as mulatto, or in modern appropriate terms, bi-racial. 

The first official listing of Thomas Lindsay I can find on paper is when he was a married adult, owning a house and valuable land properties. It is believed one or both of his parents had money as Tom apparently came from large financial means, going by his incredible life.

Lindsay was Peoria’s first market master, which was a well-respected position to hold during that time period. He would have been in charge of goods being sold in downtown Peoria. His reputation was highly respected, and his obituary states that he was sober, industrious, and frugal, and accumulated considerable amounts of properties, some of which were quite valuable. He was also known as being a weather predictor and was called the weather prophet.

He is buried at Springdale Cemetery, buying a plot a few years before his death with his daughter Julia and her first husband, Henry Gibson.

Dr. Romeo B. Garrett mentions him with great respect in his manuscript, “The Negro In Peoria”, that chronicled some of the African American history in Peoria. He said that the best known black man in Peoria was Thomas Lindsay, who owned vast amounts of property and was a man who would fight militantly for the freedom and rights of African Americans.  

Tom married a woman named Sophia, from Kentucky, in Peoria and they had six children. The couple educated their children in the sporadic education system afforded to blacks in Peoria in the 1850s and early 1860s, and later finished their children’s education in an integrated high school in Princeton, Illinois.

His oldest daughter, Elizabeth, became a teacher, social activist, writer, and national historian, as well as the founder of dozens of women and children service clubs. Elizabeth wrote a book titled “Lifting As They Climb,” about the history of the women’s and children’s clubs histories in U.S. history. Elizabeth graduated from Princeton High School with a man named Henry Clay Gordon, who later married her younger sister, Julia.

Julia Lindsay Gordon became the first African American foot doctor not only in Peoria, but in the country.

Elizabeth founded the Peoria Negro Women’s Mutual Aid Club and Julia was also a charter member. Their organization helped the poor and promoted social activities. It also helped with investigations into arrests and those in the court system, the poor and African American’s welfare in particular.

Finding information about Thomas Lindsay and other African Americans history is difficult at times. Often it was because many African Americans didn’t have last names when they were slaves. In the south they weren’t allowed to own land usually or have wills leaving a good paper-trail on lineage. Often African American families were sold to other plantations and never saw each other again. 

Black people in Peoria, including Thomas Lindsay, worked tirelessly to help slaves gain their freedom as well as saving their money to “buy” the freedom of their relatives to bring them to Peoria or farther north. The earliest known black newspaper in Peoria was called the Advanced Citizen, founded in 1892, and running until 1932. There is nothing I can find in Peoria as far as newspapers for African Americans preceding this.

Thomas Harris Lindsay is a Peoria pioneer and he and his descendants helped build Peoria, the state Illinois and the United States with their many contributions to all our citizens. I will continue researching this incredible family and find out the rest of Tom’s fascinating life. I hope to find a photograph of him, and find out who his parents were and their story.

About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.