Juliana Stratton became the first African-American to serve as Illinois’ lieutenant governor when she was sworn into office Monday.
Stratton is now also the third straight female lieutenant governor of Illinois and the fourth African-American woman in U.S. history to hold a lieutenant governorship.
Stratton stood by Gov. J.B. Pritzker through several racial controversies during the campaign, including the release of the wiretap recordings in which Pritzker made demeaning comments about Black politicians with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and a lawsuit filed by former campaign staffers alleging the Pritzker campaign used racially discriminatory practices—allegations Stratton called “baseless.”
Although Stratton was born on the South Side of Chicago, there’s no doubt she knows how to get things done in Springfield where she was a state representative for two years.
Among her most notable work included sponsoring 38 bills, eight of which she managed to sign into law, including legislation on prison and criminal justice reform.
On Monday’s inauguration ceremony, she delivered an emotional speech that touched on her family’s history—including the story of how her great-great-grandfather, William Stevens, rose out of slavery and built with his broken chains a community.
“On Dec. 3, 1818, Illinois became the 21st state. Two hundred years later, with the DNA of my formerly enslaved great-great-grandfather William Stevens as part of my genetic makeup, I am proud to stand before you as our state’s first black lieutenant governor,” Stratton said after she took the oath of office.
Her grandmother authored a family history for her grandchildren, which was tucked inside the Bible she used to take the oath of office. Stratton said she used to read her grandmother’s words and wonder what life was truly like for her great-great-grandfather, a man born into slavery.
Sometime after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Stevens and his twin brother were freed and given a large plot of land in Mississippi, by a man who had once been their master. The brothers then purchased enjoining properties and rented it out to tenants.
“These brothers, formerly enslaved, were industrious, and continued to build this community,” Stratton said. “They farmed the land, growing cotton, vegetables and fruit, and tended to livestock and poultry. They helped create every institution their tenants needed to live full lives: a church, a school, a general store, a post office.”
Stratton said she took a journey this past summer to Stevensville, Mississippi, a small, rural town that now bears her great-great-grandfather’s name. There, the school and the church and other structures the Stevens brothers built, still stand—structures which Stratton say reflect the Pritzker administration’s policy goals, like providing affordable access to vocational schools and higher education and strengthening human services.
“My trip to Stevensville, Mississippi, was powerful,” she added. “It centered me for the work that lies ahead. See, I had to reach back to my past to better understand my future.”