By Ashten Wilson
Born into a family of 8, Elizabeth Lindsay Davis began from a young age following in her parents’ footsteps of fighting for African Americans’ right to equality.
Thomas Lindsay, Elizabeth’s father, was born in 1830 and childhood details remain unknown; he was one of Peoria’s earliest settlers and it did not take long for him to fit in and begin prominently fighting for African American rights. Thomas went on to marry Sophia Jane Lindsay, who was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1838. It is said Thomas earned money to purchase Sophia’s freedom as well as his family members and friends. Thomas was one of Peoria’s first “Market masters’ ‘ which put Thomas in charge of goods sold at the downtown Peoria market. Thomas achieved a considerable amount of property and often was known for predicting the weather. Thomas Lindsay earned a lot of respect from the community and was considered the best-known Black man in Peoria and vowed to have “fought militantly for the freedom and rights of African Americans”. The couple were very active in their church and community and would go on to have their entire family contribute to the progress in the city of Peoria.
Elizabeth Lindsay was born in Peoria in 1855 and began her education at the Ward Chapel AME Church where the first school for African American children was held. After spending a few years in the very limited school, The Lindsay’s sent Elizabeth 55 miles North to Princeton Township High School where she went on to graduate with high honors in 1873 and became one of the school’s first Black graduates and delivered a commencement address titles “ The Past and Future of the Negro.” The speech went on to be reprinted in the Bureau County Republican as well as the Chicago and Peoria papers.
“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… then after 200 years of such privileges, judge us.” (Elizabeth Lindsay’s Commencement speech).
Elizabeth became a teacher and taught children in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. She went on to marry Dr. William Davis who worked as a podiatrist in Peoria in 1885 and they moved to Chicago in 1893. In 1896, Elizabeth Davis founded the Chicago Chapter of the Phyllis Wheatley Woman’s Club in 1908 and served as the president for 29 years and also went to the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls also located in Chicago in 1908 and served as its first president. Elizabeth was active in the Black women’s club movement founded by the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C. As one of the first original members of the NACW, Elizabeth Lindsay Davis served as the national organizer for almost a decade. Elizabeth would help pave the way for African American rights as well as the right for women to vote and became one of the first registered female voters in Peoria.
Elizabeth was known to be a noted historian for African American history and was an author of many books, speeches, and magazine articles. She was well known as the “go to“ resource for African American history. She later went on to be inducted as a national historian and some of her most notable work is ‘Lifting as They Climb’ and Elizabeth documents the history of the Black Women’s club movement. “Lifting as They Climb” was published in 1933 and those who have read it stated “It was brilliant, heartfelt, and wonderfully states how African Americans are God’s Creations and are as equal in every way as all American citizens should be.”
Thomas Lindsay died in 1891 along with Sophia Lindsay in 1910 and they were buried in Peoria’s historic Springdale Cemetery along with several of their children and their spouses. Elizabeth passed away in 1944 at the age of 88 but the legacy for her family’s sacrifice and devotion to fighting for the rights for African Americans never went unnoticed as their work has gifted them statues, scholarships, and even streets named after them.
*It is worth mentioning that before the Civil War occurred, Peoria was a part of the Underground Railroad and had pro-slavery groups as well as abolitionists that were involved heavily in all matters of issues including, politics, religion, and business in Peoria. Peoria even had newspapers on both sides of these issues.
About the author: Ashten Wilson, a student at Princeton High School, is currently interning at the Bureau County Historical Society. She is exploring a career in history. In addition, she is the niece and granddaughter of two members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.