Marking the Underground Railroad

Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project aims to install monument and markers in Calumet region

Underground Railroad
A crowd gathered at the Calumet City Cultural Center Sunday for a presentation on efforts to erect a monument and historical markers recognizing the role played by abolitionists in the Calumet Region in the escape of slaves to Canada via the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War and honoring those brave slaves who made their way through the area. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)
by Carrie Steinweg

Underground Railroad
Tom Shepherd presented a program on the Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project at the March meeting of the Calumet Historical Society. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)
CALUMET CITY, Ill. (March 12, 2018) – There’s a part of early south suburban history that isn’t very well known, but a group of local historians is working to change that. Prior to the Civil War, starting in the 1820s, the area was a commonly traveled route for slaves working their way north toward freedom in Canada. On Sunday, March 11, the Calumet City Historical Society’s program was about the Underground Railroad, the “Freedom Seekers” who traveled it, the abolitionists who helped them, and current efforts to install a monument and memorial markers recognizing the route.

Tom Shepherd, a former Lansing resident who now lives in Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood, is a historian and community activist. He is part of a group that has formed the Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project. Shepherd was the featured speaker for Sunday’s program, which was held at the Calumet City Cultural Center.

Working together

Underground Railroad
Jan and Aagje Ton
Underground Railroad
The Ton farmhouse along the Little Calumet River, which served as a safe house for escaping slaves.
Shepherd said that about 40 groups and individuals have joined to be part of the project, among them villages, schools, and historical societies. They’re working closely with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and the National Parks Service on a possible official historic designation in the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve close to where the Aagje and Jan Ton farm was once located. A marker is also being sought at Altgeld Gardens and other area sites. The Tons, who were Dutch immigrants, operated a farm along the Little Calumet River that was a safe house for slaves escaping from the South through the Underground Railroad.

Besides the Tons, Cornelius Kyper played a large role in hiding slaves. In his role as constable, he sent those seeking escaped slaves “on wild goose chases” according to Shepherd.

Understanding the Underground

The Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual railroad at all, but a system of moving slaves from one “station” to the next with white “conductors” who aided in their safe passage from place to place. Slaves arrived mostly from Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but also from states further south, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. “The major goal was to get to Detroit for those trying escape to Canada,” said Shepherd.

It is estimated that about 6,000 Freedom Seekers made their way through Illinois on land and by waterways, many stopping at safe houses in such places as Peotone, Crete, Homer Glen, Park Forest, Riverdale, and Dolton. Much of the information on the Underground Railroad has come from interviews with escaped slaves in the 1890s.

Letting people know

“Many people don’t know that in the Calumet Region—and the Little Calumet River plays an integral part in this—there was a major role played during the 1800s with escaped slaves coming up and trying to get to freedom through this area, mostly to Canada. What’s really fascinating about it is how the people who were here already, settlers who had been here from years before, assisted,” said Shepherd.

Shepherd showed slides of various statues, memorials, murals, and monuments in different areas of the country—from Maywood to Milwaukee to Battle Creek, Michigan—as examples of what the group is trying to accomplish. A memorial garden and marker in South Holland was also mentioned. It is located at the First Reformed Church at 15924 South Park Avenue, which is a church attended by Jan Ton.

It is the wish of Shepherd and others working on the project that a pavilion with seating eventually be part of the monument at Beaubien Woods, so educational presentations can be given to area high school students. The efforts to bring more attention to this part of history in the Calumet Region first began around 1999 with the Chicago/Calumet Underground Railroad Effort (C/CURE). Shepherd said that it was reignited briefly around 2011 and again last year. The group has been holding meetings at Carver Military Academy in Chicago, and Shepherd said that when talking to school officials there, they had no idea that such a significant historical site was in their back yard.

Larry McClellan, a former professor at Governors State University who has been researching the Underground Railroad in the Calumet Region for decades, is also involved in the project. He will be giving a presentation for the South Holland Historical Society on April 17. People interested in getting more information or being put on a mailing list should contact the group through their Facebook page, “Calumet Underground Railroad Monument.”

 

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