Naperville’s First African American Woman

Who was the first African American in Naperville? A simple question that sent Naper Settlement museum curator, Bryan Ogg on a journey through history that he’s still on today.

“If you talk to any genealogist it never stops, its sort of an addiction, we will continue to search for Sybil,” said Ogg.

Sybil Dunbar was the name Ogg found in a letter at the beginning of his search.

“A random letter, written during the Civil War, from Tennessee by a Napervillian and he wrote back home, to Hannah Ditzler and said ‘I went to a Negro spiritual here in Tennessee and shook hands with a black woman, the first time since Sybil Dunbar in Naperville.’ So we know that he had contact with her and that she was known among Napervillians,” he said.

But who was Sybil and where did she come from?

To find that Ogg dug deeper into his research and discovered that Dunbar was originally from Vermont, and came to Chicago in the 1850’s, with the Peasly and Loomis families.

“In the 1850 census, she does not have any personal wealth, but when she moves to Naperville in the 1860s she has $2,000 in personal wealth, for an African American woman at that time that’s about $32,00 dollars. So was she working with these families, they were both mercantile families,” he said.

Though there’s no way to know – the fact that she was buried on the Peasly family lot in 1868 at the Naperville Cemetery, makes it a probability.

Her crumbling gravestone prompted the Settlement to work with the Naperville Heritage Society to get a SECA grant and place a new headstone at her site, commemorating what we know about her time in Naperville.

“It really was eye opening to see that this woman who lived in a time period where our country was split on whether people should be free or not free, whether states had rights or didn’t have rights. To see that she lived and presumably worked or helped out in this community and that she was buried here and a part of the family that she needed a tombstone here in Naperville,” Ogg said.

Bryan Ogg is hosting an event at the settlement on the 28, called Finding Sybil – to highlight the Settlement’s findings and encourage others to explore their own heritage.

Naperville News 17’s Natalie Vitale reports.

 

 

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