Historians have struggled to document the activities of the Underground Railroad. It’s like writing a biography of Jesse James – people were good enough to cover their tracks and little evidence was kept. Just like the Underground Railroad! Those affected only knew of a few drivers or stops in their area. For their own protection, the parents hid their involvement from their children.
Years later, as the stories were told, they were twisted. Many families claimed they joined the Underground Railroad for family pride and a good story. It was like putting a Joe Biden sticker on your car after the 2020 election.
Many were 1st generation pioneers still trying to build lives with all their struggles. Slavery might have been casual conversation at the supper table in 1850. But later these pioneers and sons would be called upon to join the Neponset, Wyanet, Princeton and Kewanee infantry companies to defend the union. Many would not return home.
Elijah P. Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister, editor, and abolitionist in St Louis, Missouri. In 1837, Lovejoy’s press and abolitionist papers were safely stored across the river in Alton, Illinois. It made no difference. A pro-slavery mob burned down his warehouse, and he was shot and killed.
Francis Murdoch, the Alton District Attorney, prosecuted Lovejoy’s murder. The foreman of the jury was part of the crowd and was injured in the attack. The presiding judge also served as a witness in the proceedings. These conflicts of interest resulted in a “not guilty” verdict.
Lovejoy was considered a martyr by the abolitionist movement. After his death, his brother Owen Lovejoy entered politics and became the leader of the abolitionists in Illinois. In 1838 Owen wrote a book about Elijah, which was published and widely circulated among abolitionists nationwide. With his murder symbolic of rising tensions in the country, Elijah Lovejoy is called the “first victim of the civil war”.
Owen Lovejoy moved to Princeton in 1838 where he served as a minister in a Congregational church. Even more committed after his brother’s death, Lovejoy used the pulpit to advance the abolitionist cause and believed that slavery could be abolished through political action.
After two failed attempts to run for the United States House of Representatives in the 1840s, Lovejoy was elected to the House in 1856 where he gained a reputation for his fiery anti-slavery speeches. During the 1840s and 1850s Lovejoy also used his home to house slaves en route north and was subject to prosecution on several occasions.
He was quite proud of his opportunities to help slaves escape to freedom and admitted it publicly, not as a boast, but to challenge proponents of slavery. In an 1859 speech to Congress that captured national attention, Lovejoy addressed his role in the Underground Railroad directly with, “Owen Lovejoy…help every fugitive who comes to his door and asks for it.”
Much of the hidden freedom network, however, was still a carefully guarded secret among slaves and their sympathizers — like the Congregationalists who settled in Geneseo that year.
“It’s obvious that people had this passion to do something positive,” said Geneseo Historical Museum curator Angie Snook. “Because they were Congregationalists, they all believed the same way and had the same values and morals. They were very attached to their beliefs.
George and Ann Richards were abolitionists who traveled to newly founded Geneseo, Illinois from New York. They built a house which is now the town museum. In the 1850s it housed runaway slaves as part of an underground railway station. The house/museum showcases the real hideouts of runaway slaves. There’s hardly any room to move, you can’t stand, and it housed up to three runaway slaves at a time. They stayed for up to three days before moving on to the next stage. They were at great risk breaking federal law to help slaves.
“They broke every rule that existed in the country, when it came to their church, the government and often their families were against them as well. So when they came here, they gave it all up,” Snook explains.
The underground network was vast and complicated by design. The 450 mile Great Sauk Trail was a natural route to Canada. In fact, there’s a plaque in Merrillville, Indiana, celebrating up to 4,500 slaves who walked the road to freedom.
On our local trail 3 miles west of IL Rt 78 was an old stagecoach stop from 1840. A young lady visited the area a while ago and spoke with Angie Snook. She shared that her great-great-grandmother was a young slave in the Old South. Being alone, probably separated from her family and fearing being mistreated, she decided to run away.
Along with 2 male slaves, they traveled the Underground Railroad to a station in Kewanee Township. For unknown reasons, her companions abandoned her and hid in the huge woods of Barren Grove to the east of her (now Johnson’s Sauk Trail Park).
Around this time, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and she was free. She stayed at the stagecoach stop and worked as a cleaner. Later, she met another former slave, got married and moved to Kewanee, as her great-great-granddaughter recalls.
My previous short stories ended with a modern lesson or perspective. The practice of slavery and human trafficking is still prevalent in modern America, with approximately 400,000 Americans trafficked into the United States each year. 80% of them are women and children. In fact, in the world today, there are more people in modern slavery than there were in 1860.
For example, today “Susan” is a shy elementary school student in the United States. His identity was revealed after a dedicated US police department detective pursued an anonymous tip regarding the online solicitation.
This investigation identified the predator as a very popular teacher in the community. Confronted by investigators, the teacher revealed information about 16 previously unidentified victims. She was one of those children.
All of the victims, boys and girls, have been located and identified and are now receiving the aftercare services they need to heal from the damage inflicted by this sex offender. The offending teacher is now facing a long prison term.
Today, the Underground Railroad is history. Our country must remember the risks and the sacrifices people made, regardless of race, that made a difference for future generations.
They believed in freedom and human justice and focused their lives on these goals. We can be honest with our past and move forward to help those who suffer from slavery today. Perspective and awareness are the first steps.