Discovering Sybil

No one knows how, why or when Sybil Dunbar arrived in Naperville, but Bryan Ogg is determined to find out.

The research curator at Naper Settlement is looking into the story behind Dunbar. Information Ogg has uncovered so far indicates that sometime in the 1850s, she became the city’s first African American resident.

As usual, the hunt began with examination of old U.S. Census records. Ogg said that through the first half of the 19th century, the decennial head count provided little detail beyond naming heads of the households, whether or not they had spouses, and how many children lived with them. Beginning in 1850, information was added about citizens, including their monetary worth and family members’ names and ages.

“It appeared that in 1860, one black woman came up in the census” data for Naperville, Ogg said.

The list of “Free Inhabitants in Naperville” assembled that year lists Dunbar as “Independent,” with a personal estate valued at $2,000 — the equivalent of about $52,000 today.

That’s where the inquiry began.

By poring through local records that contradict one another at times, and examining the area of the Naperville Cemetery where Dunbar was laid to rest, Ogg so far has determined that Dunbar had connections of some sort with some of the city’s earliest families, including Butlers, Conklins, Peaslees and Loomises.

He also has found evidence that she may have had a status in Naperville that wasn’t always accorded to people of color at that time. An old Skylines column in The Sun, penned by longtime staff writer Genevieve Towsley, reprinted part of a letter written by Daniel Weaver in 1863 to Hannah Ditzler, a Naperville resident who maintained extensive journals during the Civil War. Weaver told of a meeting he had attended recently where a woman approached him and his fellow soldiers to shake their hands.

“This was the first time I shook hands with a black woman, except Sybil Dunbar in Naperville,” Weaver wrote.

Ogg is also intrigued by Dunbar’s name showing up in old documents alongside those of the families with whom she apparently was associated, rather than separately, as servants routinely were listed in that era.

“There are a lot of things that we do not know,” he said.

Still other records have led Dunbar’s trail back to a small and close-knit village in Vermont, where her parents and grandparents lived. With printed histories from the era often spotty and sometimes inaccurate, and funding not yet secured for further inquiry, that’s where the trail has gone cold.

“That’s part of the research, what we’re trying to find out,” Ogg said. “Where are these family trees being constructed from?”

Those answers aren’t beyond reach, but they may need to wait. The Naperville Heritage Society has received a preliminary nod from the City Council for a $5,500 Special Events and Cultural Amenities grant to restore Dunbar’s grave, which is near the southeast corner of the Naperville Cemetery on Washington Street.

The group requested more than twice that amount from the SECA fund, aiming to delve more deeply into Dunbar’s early days in Vermont. In a SECA workshop on Feb. 22, the Advisory Cultural Commission weighed the Heritage Society’s $12,900 request.

“We think there’s a good story there to tell,” said Mike Krol, Naper Settlement’s president and CEO, urging the commissioners to support the full grant request.

The commission, which had some 90 other SECA requests to consider, eventually agreed to recommend providing enough of the sum to cover restoration of Dunbar’s headstone, which has grown worn with the passage of time. They advised the Heritage Society to come back next year for more funds to continue the Dunbar research.

Ogg is hopeful that over the long term, she will emerge as a significant figure in Naperville’s early days.

“I would like to see that she owned a shop in downtown Naperville,” he said. “I would like to see what church she belonged to.”

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