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Civil Rights Civil War Racine History

Peter D. Thomas: Ex-slave, Civil War veteran, and coroner

As a former resident of Racine County and a person interested in mortuary sciences, history, and human rights I have always been surprised about the important tidbits of Racine history I have never heard of. Many years ago, when I had been working at a museum in Racine for five or so years I first heard about an extraordinary gentleman—Peter D. Thomas. It was about a year ago that I photocopied the newspaper articles on him and tossed it on my large stack of “to-do”s. Though long overdue, today is the day I finally type his article up. Peter D. Thomas, the first person of color to be elected to an office in Racine County, and possibly the first in the state of Wisconsin. Peter D. Thomas, a former slave, a veteran of the Civil War, a pillar of the GAR community. Thomas’ legacy is a rich thread that today I’d like to share with you.

Early Life

Peter D. Thomas
Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Peter D. Thomas, 3399. Viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM3399.

Peter D. Thomas was born on April 8, 1847, in Tiptonville, Tennessee five miles from Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River.[1] The plantation he lived on was owned by a wealthy widow who looked after her four daughters. Originally, Thomas was charged with accompanying the young girls on their horseback rides to ward off “undesirable company” and to make sure if they met with an appropriate suitor that they would not be interrupted. When Thomas turned thirteen, however, he was sent to work in the fields.[2] A short year later, the Civil War began.

Beginning of Freedom

Thomas was sent to help defend the fortification on Island No. 10, as all plantations were required to send some of their slaves to help in the war effort. When the Battle of Island No. 10 broke out Thomas was nearly hit by a cannonball, but luckily for him, he saw the end of the fight and the beginning of his freedom.[3]  It was in October of 1862 that Union troops scored a victory at Island No. 10 and announced that the slaves forced to work on the fortification were now free and could go wherever they wished.[4] This left many former enslaved people with no idea where to go next, so Thomas, like many others, followed the army. Thomas tagged along with Captain Charles B. Nelson of Company G of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He acted as Captain Nelson’s servant for the time being, as people of color were not yet allowed to enlist in the military.[5] Map of Island 10 and New Madrid

While alongside the Captain he saw the Battles of Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, Dalton, Resaca, and finally Dallas—where Captain Nelson was wounded. Thomas left along with Captain Nelson, escorting him on the trip back to his home in Beloit, Wisconsin.[6] There, briefly, he worked on Nelson’s farm before the military began allowing former slaves and other African Americans to enlist in the army. Thomas traveled to Camp Randall in Madison, Wisconsin and from there was sent to Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.[7] On August 8, 1864, Thomas was mustered in as a part of the 18th U.S. Infantry, a division of African American troops.[8]

The War Ends

During his enlistment, he served in the Battles of Franklin and Nashville, with the war wrapping up when he was 18 years old.[9] Right after the war Thomas moved back to Beloit and worked on the farm as he attended high school and one year of college.[10] Thomas wanted to use his newfound knowledge to go back to the South and teach former slaves, but he found himself in Chicago for some time. It was then that Thomas decided the bias against African American teachers was still too great in the South, and he changed his line of work.[11] In 1870, Thomas became an expert whiskey sampler at a wholesale liquor house.[12] Before another move, Thomas married his wife, Carrie Prime, on May 17, 1879.[13] Then in 1883 that Thomas moved back up North to Racine, Wisconsin.[14] Thomas began working as a custodian of both the First National Bank and the Racine County Courthouse.[15] Three years later he was nominated for county coroner by acclamation and made his way onto the ballot as a Democrat. There was hardly any commentary from Racine newspapers regarding his race as a factor in the election—Thomas was a beloved member of the community, regardless of the color of his skin.[16] Thomas won the vote, 2,430 to 1,422.[17] He served for two years, continuing his work at the courthouse and bank after his term was up.[18]

Memorial Hall, 1979
Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, Memorial Hall, Racine, Racine, Wisconsin, 11302.

Prominent Community Veteran

Governor Louis P. Harvey
The namesake of Wisconsin GAR Post 17 Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Portrait of Wisconsin Governor Louis P. Harvey, 117538. Viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM117538.

While in Racine, Thomas also became a member of Governor Louis P. Harvey Grand Army of the Republic Post 17.[19] Post 17 was founded in 1881[20] and was an important part of the Racine veteran community—62.6% of eligible veterans were a part of the organization.[21] Thomas was described as an “active member” and could always be found in the GAR room at Memorial Hall, recounting his experiences of the Civil War with other veterans. Once during his time with the GAR, he even served as the Junior Vice Commander and the chairman of the headstone committee.[22] This was important, as most posts of the GAR were heavily segregated by the 1880s but there are no records indicating that Post 17 was.[23]

Unfortunately, Thomas died at the age of 73 on December 11, 1925, in his home on Center Street. His death was the result of accidental asphyxiation when gas from his furnace began to leak into his home.[24] The Journal Times reported that “the gas that escaped from his coal furnace cost him his life.”[25] Peter D. Thomas was an accomplished man and an incredible part of Racine’s history. His life and part within the community reflect Racine’s diverse roots and narrative of equality. Though today Racine is struggling with both its diversity and equality, Thomas should serve as a reminder that everyone is equal and those who are allowed to flourish can do amazing things and even make history.

 

Sources

  • [1] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 20, 1993.
  • [2] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 2, 1992.
  • [3] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal (Racine, WI), February 22, 1922.
  • [4] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [5] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890) Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War; Series Number: M123; Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Record Group Number: 15; Census Year: 1890.
  • [9] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [10] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [13] Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920.
  • [14] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [15] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [16] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [17] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [18] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [19] Eugene Walter Leach, Racine County Militant. (Racine: Eugene Walter Leach, 1915), 134-136.
  • [20] Thomas J. McRoy, Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin. (Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005), 133.
  • [21] Thomas J. McRoy, Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin. (Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005), 355.
  • [22] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [23] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001) 194-195.
  • [24] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [25] “Looking Backward,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) December 12, 1955.

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