As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation looms Jan. 1, a quiet celebration has been taking place at the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.
Earlier this month a rare document was unearthed from the society's archives that has everyone grinning -- especially Reg Ankrom, executive director.
According to Ankrom, the document was found by happenstance. It popped up after the recent installation of a new inventory system that keeps better track of the 9,000 artifacts the society has collected since its formation in 1896.
This sophisticated cataloguing system replaced a simple computer database used for years to list books, documents, photographs, furniture and other items of historic significance.
The old system "really didn't do a very good job of categorizing stuff," Ankrom said. "You really had to know where to look to find things."
The new system allows detailed searches of everything in the archives -- even obscure artifacts unseen for decades. That's how Ankrom ran across the rare document nobody knew was there.
Ankrom was doing some research about Quincy's role in the anti-slavery movement, which culminated with Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves effective Jan. 1, 1863.
The new inventory system revealed the Historical Society had a copy of the official proceedings from an anti-slavery convention that took place Oct. 26-28, 1837, in Alton. And it pointed out the document's exact location.
Ankrom was thrilled to pick up the frail, 36-page document.
"It gave me chills when I held it in my hot little hands because it's one of only 10 in the world," he said.
The document chronicles what took place during the organizational meeting of a statewide anti-slavery society.
Other research by Ankom shows Quincy launched the first anti-slavery society in Illinois in 1835. He said about 70 of those abolitionist pioneers later signed a petition to start a statewide anti-slavery group. The Quincy petitioners convinced Alton newspaper publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy to host the convention. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister, was a well-known abolitionist and free-speech advocate.
As it turned out, Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob just 10 days after the Alton convention. He came to be viewed nationally as a martyr for abolitionism and free speech.
Ankrom said Quincy was apparently "a hotbed of abolitionism" in the 1830s. During that era, Quincy became a key stop on the Underground Railroad -- the covert network that helped escaped slaves flee to freedom.
Ankrom said the rare 1837 anti-slavery document is providing more insight into that period. He owes its discovery to the new "Past Perfect" cataloguing software the Historical Society bought with a $2,298 grant from the Illinois State Historical Records Advisory Board.
"The program has already proven tremendously valuable," he said. But its value will accelerate in coming months when the agency begins putting its entire catalog of historic items online.
Donna Foley, who does volunteer work for the society, said having a searchable catalog online will be a godsend for researchers with an interest in Adams County history. She said the new program not only will show what artifacts are available in the society's archives, but it can also display photos of many items.
"That's going to be very exciting," she said.
Ankrom is delighted the Historical Society will soon be able to share more information about its treasured holdings with the world.
"We don't want to hide our light under the basket," he said.