In the years leading up to the Civil War, several homes and farms in Illinois functioned as stopovers on the Underground Railroad, the network of hiding places for runaway slaves on their way to freedom in the north. One of these was the Graue Mill on Salt Creek in what is now Oak Brook. The mill, which was often very busy, was next to a stagecoach shop. Customers would park their horses and visit while the escaped slaves hidden in the mill's basement tried to remain quiet. Now known as the Old Graue Mill and Museum, it's one of the area's most well-known former Railroad sites and features an exhibit on the mill's history in the basement. Other "stations" were more elaborate, such as a house in Glen Ellyn on the Du Page River described in history books as being constructed out of concrete and soundproofed by sawdust and grass, with an escape tunnel running from the house to a barn. But the house, like other former stations in McHenry County and Chicago, is long gone.
Glennette Tilley Turner first heard about Illinois' role in the Underground Railroad in 1968 when a neighbor mentioned it in passing. "I hadn't imagined it could be," says Turner. "I was wondering if she was claiming a history the area didn't really have." Curious, Turner hit the Du Page County Historical Museum and the library. Over the next several years, piecing together information culled from many sources, she found that Illinois had indeed been a major route for escaped slaves from Missouri on their way to Canada or Wisconsin.
Turner, a retired elementary school teacher and author of three African-American history books, has been working on a history of the state's involvement with the Underground Railroad since her neighbor's comment piqued her interest. Over the past several years, she and the National Park Service have identified 35 sites around the state, including the old Quinn Chapel at Jackson and Federal, the Gardner Home and Tavern on Beverly Avenue, Windhill Farm in McHenry County, and downstate stations in Ottawa, Marseilles, Quincy, and Alton. Most were along the Mississippi, Fox, and Des Plaines rivers or old Indian trails. Galesburg, settled by abolitionists, was an important stop on the overland route. It was sometimes safer for the runaways to avoid large cities, where slave catchers knew to look, and stay in friendlier towns off the beaten path, says Turner. "Many towns and church founders were against slavery, and it was safer in that sense for a person to hide there. Legal entities would sort of look the other way....People of all ages and races and income brackets and religions were involved. I think it was such a wonderful precedent. It showed that Americans cooperated in that way and that time, and we could do it again."
Instead of stopping the Underground Railroad in its tracks, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which called for harsh consequences for both runaways and accomplices, actually strengthened the resolve of abolitionists in Illinois. (Ironically, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was instrumental in pushing that bill through Congress.) The stations, working in conjunction, used river travel, rail, horses, and wagons with false bottoms to transport runaways to safety. One Chicago freeman, Richard DeBaptiste, would loan his freedom papers to slaves passing through Chicago. When the runaways reached Detroit, his brother George would ferry them across the water to Canada and then send the papers back to Richard to be used again.
Turner says it's impossible to determine how many people passed through Illinois' Underground Railroad system or how long they stayed in each place. "I see it like jazz, in that every situation was different and people were resourceful and met whatever the need was," she says. Some spent the winter in the area before continuing to Detroit in warmer weather. Others stayed less than a day to avoid capture.
Turner's book The Underground Railroad in Illinois will be released next February. "I originally ended the book with getting to Canada and living happily ever after," she says. But her editors urged her to fill in the picture. "That was difficult and challenging. In Canada, even though slavery had been outlawed, they were still adjusting to a new climate and finding out what crops would grow there....They really had to create their own definition of community as well as how they would proceed in their lives."
Turner will tell stories, show slides, and lead a role-playing game about Illinois and the Underground Railroad Thursday at 6 at Clarke House, 1800 S. Prairie. It's free. Call 312-326-1480 for reservations. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Glennette Tilley Turner photo by Peter Barreras.