CHICAGO — Three Illinois abolitionists who were convicted for anti-slavery efforts in the 1800s were posthumously pardoned Wednesday by Gov. Pat Quinn, their names among 102 people granted New Year's Eve clemency by the outgoing Chicago Democrat.
Efforts to pardon the three were spearheaded by Quincy historians and Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who filed petitions on their behalf last year as part of a special project. Among them was an Underground Railroad conductor — Dr. Richard Eells —whose Quincy home was declared by the U.S. National Park Service as one of the nation's most important sites on the covert network that led escaped slaves to freedom and safety.
"These early warriors for freedom put everything on the line to help their fellow man, and their civil disobedience paved the way for civil rights," Quinn said in a statement. "Clearing their criminal records 171 years later shows how far we have come, but reminds us all that we should fight injustice wherever we find it."
Simon also sought clemency for two abolitionists from Jacksonville, Julius Willard and his son, Samuel. They were convicted in 1843 of secreting and harboring a fugitive slave, among the same charges against Eells.
Illinois residents voted to abolish slavery in 1824. However, state and federal law prohibited the harboring or assisting of runaway slaves in free states.
The historic pardons were praised by the Abolition Institute, a nonprofit Chicago-based organization which works to fight modern-day slavery, including in Mauritania.
"Honoring these abolitionists is the right thing to do for their families and is helping to energize a new generation of Illinoisans to honor their legacy by fighting against human trafficking and modern-day slavery," institute co-founder Sean Tenner said in a statement released by Simon's office.
Quinn granted 99 other, more recent clemency requests and denied 208 petitions for years-old cases, according to a list from the Prisoner Review Board.
The governor still faces about 3,000 pending clemency requests during his final weeks in office before Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner is sworn in.
Quinn's office said those granted clemency have recently undergone background checks through an Illinois State Police database and can seek expungement of their conviction through the court system, among other things.
Quinn inherited a backlog of thousands of clemency cases from predecessor Rod Blagojevich; a spokeswoman says Quinn has mostly tackled them. However, aides say there's been a surge in petitions filed in recent years. During his six years in office, Quinn has sifted through about 4,200 clemency cases, which is more than recent Illinois governors. Of those, he's granted 1,520 requests and denied 2,752.
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