Much has been written and much has been said about the great abolitionists from the eastern seaboard. This includes the accounts of slavery objectors from Frederick Douglass of Washington to Williams Lloyd Garrison of Boston and freedom seekers such as Harriet Tubman of Dorchester County, Maryland.
But look at who had the means to control the narrative. Around 1840, when the Underground Railroad was in full swing, Boston, with about 95,000 citizens, was home of the elite and many of those who documented and disseminated history. Shikaakwa, the Native American word for Chicago, on the other hand, was a small town, about the size of its current Loop (downtown), with only about 5,000 people.
The story of freedom seeker Caroline Quarlls and her escape should be told along with that of Harriet Tubman, especially to Midwestern children.
Since around 1999, under various names, The Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project of Chicago has been balancing this old east coast narrative. The volunteer group researches resistance stories from the great Midwest and memorializes them in a variety of ways including via a recent Underground Railroad tour in a rural/industrial area at Chicago's southern edge.
As our tour group stood on the Indiana Avenue Bridge that spans the Calumet-Saganashkee (Calumet-Sag) Channel/Little Calumet River, Professor Larry McClellan, explained “Between roughly 1820 and 1861, about one-third of the 4,500 freedom seekers who traveled through Chicago crossed the river at this point, then called the Riverdale Crossing ferry and bridge."
Spookily, as a commuter train crossed the river on the nearby Illinois Central Railroad tracks, he added that scores later other Blacks would more freely leave the South for Chicago over those same tracks during the Great Black Migration (1916-1970). (Those migrants included my parents.)
Interestingly, many of those passengers on the commuter train are probably descendent of the migrators and were heading home to one of Chicago’s majority Black south suburban villages.
In the 1800s, many of the formerly enslaved Africans who crossed the river were helped by Dutch immigrant farmers including the Ton family. McClellan, a long-time civil rights advocate, went on to point out that part of the nearby Ton family farm now includes a marina owned by a former Chicago policeman, or one of Chicago’s “finest,” Ron Grimes. Grimes, who is of African descent, calls the former safe house and riverfront grounds Chicago’s “Finest” Marina.
In addition to memorializing the ground’s history with a historic marker, the site will soon include picnic grounds, pontoons, and kayaking. With the group’s advocacy, The National Park Service now includes the farm/marina on its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom registry.
As the tour bus carried us to former small farm plots once cared for by Blacks who had arrived during The Great Black Migration, McClellan reminded us that the land once served as safe territory for freedom seekers.
The former professor at Governors State University in South Suburban Chicago admits that the history of the land was probably never shared with the small plot farmers, but added that the story of freedom seeker Caroline Quarlls and her escape should be told along with that of Harriet Tubman, especially to Midwestern children.
“This was activity in our own backyard,” exclaimed the co-author of “To the River: The Remarkable Journey of Caroline Quarlls, a Freedom Seeker on the Underground Railroad.” He wrote the book with one of her direct descendants Kimberly Simmons.