“The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor was it underground. It was a secret network led by people that included free Black and anti-slavery white people who helped escaped slaves, or freedom seekers, travel north for the promise of freedom. Along the way, they were offered shelter in secret hiding places, small amounts of money on occasion, clothing, and food.
“Many of the trails fanned across Illinois and into what is now the south suburbs of Chicago. According to Larry McClellan, a historian and retired professor who has researched and published on the subject, ‘ten to fifteen percent of the activity of the Underground Railroad came through Illinois, literally through our backyard.’
“Despite the region’s significance in the Underground Railroad, Illinois is rarely included in conversations about that history. McClellan and other members of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project are leading the way to recognize and memorialize the places and people around Chicago who played a role.
“Even though The Underground Railroad had nothing to do with an actual railroad system, railroad terminology was often used to confuse slave catchers and maintain secrecy. Terms such as stations referred to safehouses, passengers were freedom seekers, and lines were another way to indicate the roads being followed. Guides were known as conductors while trains and engines were covert references to farm wagons and teams of horses. Freedom seekers made their way into the south suburban regions of Chicago from various locations in an effort to escape bondage. According to McClellan, one known example involved the journey to freedom undertaken by Barney Ford.
“‘The stories of Illinois need to be included in the national story of the Underground Railroad and currently, they are not,’ McClellan said.
“McClellan, who said that he was increasingly drawn to the history of the region and particularly to places reflecting African-American settlement, wrote the book titled The Underground Railroad South of Chicago, which came out in 2019. He has been researching the subject for over thirty years. ‘Along the way, I ran into references to the Underground Railroad and began to see that this has been a vital but almost forgotten part of our region’s history.’
“While the nature of the Underground Railroad was a secret, current efforts are not, and there is an attempt to identify former Underground Railroad sites and garner national recognition for them in the south suburbs. Tom Shepherd—who is the lead organizer of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project—McClellan, and other members of the group are spearheading it, but similar efforts date back to 1999.
“In order to be recognized as an historic site in the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom registry, a site must be a location that has a demonstrated and verifiable association with the Underground Railroad, and applications are accepted twice a year in January and July.
“Making a case for these sites and raising public awareness has been the focal point for the group. ‘We have three particular missions,’ said Shepherd, ‘and one is to get some type of a memorial at the Ton Farm site or nearby.’ The former Jan and Aagje Ton Farm, which is listed in the national registry, sits on the Little Calumet directly south of the area generally referred to as Altgeld Gardens and the Golden Gate neighborhood. The Golden Gate neighborhood extends from 130th Street south to the Calumet River. The actual site of the original home and outbuildings of the Ton Farm is now home to Chicago’s Finest Marina, a Black-owned motorboat marina located at 557 E. 134th Place in Chicago.
“‘We’re also looking at the Beaubien Woods and the forest preserve,’ he said. The farm was located near the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve and is said to have been one of the stops where freedom seekers could find shelter.” (Robinson, South Side Weekly, 3/13/22)
The South Suburbs’s Little Known Underground Railroad; Historians and activists push to recognize the history of Underground Railroad stops and guides in the south suburbs, Dierdre Robinson, South Side Weekly, 3/13/22