John J. Bird was the first Black trustee of University of Illinois

John J. Bird became the first African-American trustee of the University of Illinois more than a decade before the school even had any Black students.

Bird’s tombstone in Oak Ridge Cemetery doesn’t mention that distinction, but its text does include an unusual note: the stone was “erected by the 47th General Assembly of Illinois.” And newspaper stories show that two lawmakers from Springfield – Reps. Thomas Lyon and James Morris (both white) – were among the half-dozen speakers at Bird’s memorial service.

None of the stories or other records say why Bird was accorded such recognition. His term on the university may have been part of the reason, but the brief accounts of the grave dedication don’t mention it. The articles describe Bird only as “a colored janitor at the state house.”

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