Emma J. Atkinson: One of the Mysterious “Big Four” Abolitionists

3 Posted by - November 18, 2019 - BLACK WOMEN, SLAVERY

Emma J. Atkinson was a Black abolitionist who was one of the mysterious “Big Four,” a group of women at Quinn Chapel who provided aid to runaway slaves.

Atkinson arrived in Chicago around 1847 with her husband, Isaac. When they arrived, there were only around 200 other blacks in the city. By 1850, the African-American population in Chicago only consisted of fewer than 400 residents out of a total population of over 23,000.

The “Big Four” women acted as conductors for the Underground Railroad. They provided shelter, food, and other necessities need to help runaway slaves. Out of the four black women, Atkinson is the only known name. There were no records kept by the “Big Four” abolitionists, and little else is known about their work.

The first congregants of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. were mainly former slaves and strong advocates of the abolition movement. In 1871, the chapel was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. The church’s congregants became nomads once again, holding services in a series of temporary locations. However, when the church was rebuilt in 1891, the location remained a safe haven for runaway slaves.



Chicago Public Library


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  • Jeffery Harris September 4, 2017 - 6:47 am

    There were NO runaway slaves in 1891!!! IJS

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    Indeed she is “mysterious,” with her arriving in Chicago in 1847, but was not REALLY born until August 28, 1892. Shame on you for passing on inaccurate information!

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  • linda tart November 22, 2019 - 6:58 pm

    History is not history, if the facts are wrong. In 1871, there was no need to use the church as part of the underground, because slavery had been over 6 years.