From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

French, John B.

(born: 1857  -  died: 1931) John B. French was a politician, activist, singer, and business owner who was the first African American to be appointed to the Industrial Commission of Illinois. The appointment came from Governor Len Small in 1922. The Industrial Commission acted on cases received from employees who had been injured on the job and were seeking compensation and cases presented by persons seeking compensation for family members who had been killed on the job. French was a member of the commission branch that made the final decision on the cases.

During World War I, he had also served on the Chicago Housing Committee and the Committee on the high cost of food. In 1920 he was a member of the Chicago Board of Examiners and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for County Commissioner.

French was the husband of Carrie Dennie; the couple had married in 1886 in West Bend, KS while John was performing as an elocutionist with the Wilberforce Concert Company. Carrie French, educated at Oberlin College, was a soprano soloist.

John French had also been a Jubilee singer, bell boy, shipping clerk, caterer, the manager of Buildings and Grounds at Tuskegee Institute [now Tuskegee University], and steward at a country club. When he was named to the Industrial Commission in 1922, he was owner of French's Pastry, a restaurant on Broadway.

In 1930, John French was among the group of Colored leaders in Chicago who were asked to meet with the Woolworth Company attorney, E. H. Williams. There was a problem; three of the Woolworth stores in the south side Colored district of Chicago were being picketed and boycotted. The Chicago Whip had organized the demonstration to force the Woolworth Company to hire Negro employees in the stores that were primarily supported by Negro patrons. John and Carrie French did not live on the south side--they lived at 4650 Winthrop Avenue, on the north end of Chicago.

John had moved beyond Hubbard Street, where he had once lived with his family when they moved to Chicago from Kentucky just after the Civil War. John French, his mother, and all of his siblings were born in Kentucky. The family is listed as mulattoes in the census records beginning in 1870. John's wife, Carrie Dennie French, was born in 1862. Her mother was a Kentucky native who had migrated to Illinois, where Carrie was born.

For more see "Hon. J. B. French makes record in state position," Chicago World, 10/29/1925, p. 3; "John B. French," p. 6, in Chicago Negro Almanac and Reference Book, edited by E. R. Rather; "The Mr. John B. French...," Cleveland Gazette, 1/9/1886, p. 1; and "Leaders hold conference with Woolworth attorney," Plaindealer, 8/29/1930, p. 1.

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“French, John B.,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 15, 2024,

Last modified: 2022-06-08 16:40:48