Isrel L Blackburn

Main St. Cemetery Marker: O1
Born: May 3, 1818
Died: March 15, 1902

Sergeant Isrel L. Blackburn was born into slavery and for the first 48 years of his life he was the property of plantation owner John Bowman of Mercer County Kentucky. Blackburn’s life changed in 1864 when Bowman sold him to the Union Army. Isrel became a member of Company C of the 124th Colored Infantry during the Civil War. When the War ended, Blackburn made his way north and found a new home in Downers Grove, Illinois. He was given a piece of land owned by Samuel Curtiss to farm and raise 5 of his children. Proud of his new home, he was one of the signers of the village Incorporation Papers in 1873. Blackburn died in 1902 at the age of 90.

Isrel Larry Blackburn was born into slavery in Mercer County, Kentucky on May 3, 1818, on a plantation owned by John Bowman. There he would live until 1864 when he was sold by Bowman to the Union Army. At that time Isrel was assigned regiment garrison duties at Camp Nelson in Company C of the 124th U.S. “Colored Infantry” in Kentucky, just one of the 175 colored regiments formed during the Civil War. His service there earned him the rank of sergeant before he was discharged on June 23, 1865.

In 1866, Blackburn and his six children made their way north.  The 1870 Downers Grove census reveals that Isrel was living in Downers Grove with his youngest five children ranging in age from 8 to 24 years old. His eldest son, Gayland was living in Chicago and worked in the household of industrialist Joseph T Ryerson in 1870.

Since Downers Grove had been founded by abolitionists from New England, it was not surprising that the local citizens helped him when he arrived. He was able to acquire 2.47 acres of land from Samuel Curtiss and it was on that property that Isrel, a widower, continued to raise his family.  Isrel farmed the land at the southwest corner of Forest and Curtiss Streets where he grew crops, including celery, and then sold the produce to local citizens. With his 6’2” frame and long beard, Isrel was easily recognized and became affectionately known around town as “Uncle Larry”. Isrel soon took an interest in the affairs of the village and was one of the 38 signers of the Incorporation Papers for Downers Grove which was incorporated as an official village on March 31, 1873.

On Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day, Blackburn was often seen placing flags and flowers on Civil War graves at the Main Street Cemetery. He and other Civil War veterans and members of the Naper Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Downers Grove could be seen proudly marching in parades to honor those who died in the Civil War. Several years ago a G.A.R. star was added to his gravestone in honor of his participation in the organization.

In 1902, Isrel Blackburn, about 84, passed away at the Old Soldiers Home in Danville, Illinois. So loved by the citizens of Downers Grove, Isrel’s remains were buried in the Main Street Cemetery near the graves of 2 of his sons. In 1973, when his grave marker fell into disrepair, it was replaced through efforts by the Downers Grove Historical Society and the American Legion Post 80.


There are six known children of Isrel Blackburn. From the Illinois Death Indexes, the mothers of his youngest and oldest children are known. No record of a mother of the other four children has been found.

  • Gayland H Blackburn [son] (1842-1913) – He was the son of Charlotte Clay. He married Clara Thorn. They were the parents of 3 girls. He had numerous descendants, many of whom are alive today.
  • Isrel L Blackburn, Jr. [son] (1844-1885) – He never married. By 1880 he was living in Chicago working in the a dyer scourer and living with his younger brother Lincoln. His older brother, Gayland, was the administrator of his estate. He is buried in Main Street Cemetery.
  • Mary Cecelia Blackburn [daughter] (1850-after 1889) – She was married to Charles Keller or Kelly, of Chicago in December 1889 by Reverend Thomas Anderson. There is no record of children from this marriage. Mary was about 39 at the time of her marriage. No further account has been found for either Charles or Mary.
  • Leuann Blackburn (1857-?) – She possibly died young as she is in the 1870 with the family, but is not in the 1880 census with the family.
  • Malcolm A Blackburn [son] (1859-1884) – He never married. By 1880 he was living in Chicago working in the cleaning business. He is buried in Main Street Cemetery.
  • Lincoln A Blackburn (1863-1938) – He was the son of Challis Hares. By 1880 he was living in Chicago working in the as a laborer and living with his older brother, Isrel. He married Mamie Hackley in 1883. There is no record of any children from this marriage.

While the Blackburn surname, did not survive past the death of his youngest son, Lincoln, in 1938, Isrel’s extended family continues on through descendants of his eldest son, Gayland.


In 2022, the Mayor Robert T. Barnett, Mayor of Downers Grove, announced the village will honor Isrel Blackburn at the new village hall that is to be constructed.

An entry plaza named in his honor is a concrete and permanent statement that Civil Rights is our first calling as a Village government. When future generations approach their government in their new facility, they will walk through a physical reminder of what we think is important.

In 2024, Blackburn was named the 2024 Founder of the Year by the Downers Grove Historical Society.

Isrel has many descendants, some of whom still live in the Chicago area.


  • Gayland H Blackburn [son] (1842-1913)
  • Isrel L Blackburn, Jr. [son] (1844-1885)
  • Mary Cecelia Blackburn [daughter] (1850-after 1895)
  • Leuann Blackburn [daughter] (1857-?)
  • Malcolm A Blackburn [son] (1859-1884)
  • Lincoln A Blackburn [son] (1863-1938)

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