Destination Freedom on Illinois’ Underground Railroad Sites
No trains, no tracks, no tickets – no guarantees of safe arrival. Hidden heroes risked everything on the Underground Railroad where all routes led to the same destination: freedom.
Established in the early 1800s – if not earlier – the term Underground Railroad describes a loose network of routes, passages and safe houses that helped thousands of slaves escape north to freedom.
“Getting to Canada was the gold standard,” says Nicole Louis, director of education and exhibits for the Lombard Historical Society. “After the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, if you knew about runaway slaves, you had to turn them in – even in a free state like Illinois.”
Many freedom seekers began their perilous journey in Alton, a Mississippi River city located on the Illinois border near St. Louis.
“Research has found that Alton is one of four major starting points on the Underground Railroad – along with Cairo, Chester and Quincy,” says Eric Robinson, who leads Underground Railroad tours in the Alton area.
A steppingstone for many, the Alton area became home for others.
“The communities of Rocky Fork and Godfrey date back to pre-Civil War,” says Robinson, “and Wood Station is still used by descendants of escaped slaves and includes the oldest family farm still in operation.”
Robinson peppers his popular tour with personal narratives of heroes like Priscilla Baltimore, who risked her own newfound freedom to help 300 more find theirs. In the 1820s, she founded Lovejoy (Brooklyn), Ill., which later became America’s first incorporated black town.
Nearby, Dr. Thomas Brown helped make Brighton a hotbed of abolitionist activity.
“Brighton was so infamous that people in Missouri wanted to come over and burn the town down,” says Robinson.
“It was a felony to help slaves escape,” he says. “You could face a prison term or fine – or if you were unlucky, be lynched by your neighbors.”
In 1842, the law caught up with Dr. Richard Eells, whose Quincy home provided sanctuary for hundreds of freedom seekers. Judge Stephen Douglas – who would go on to debate slavery with Abraham Lincoln – fined Eells $400, the equivalent of more than $11,000 today.
Others paid an even higher price.
The Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument in Alton honors the Presbyterian minister, newspaper editor and outspoken abolitionist murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton in 1837.
For travelers on the Underground Railroad, success depended largely on “how fast and how far you could walk,” says Robinson, “and the kindness of strangers.”
Kindness filled the home of Sheldon Peck. In fact, Peck’s youngest son, Frank, once wrote: “Only love ruled in our house.”
After settling in Babcock’s Grove (now Lombard) in 1837, the farmer-turned-folk artist played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad for decades.
“Peck was what we call a ‘radical abolitionist’ because he was not just against slavery – he also wanted racial equality,” Louis says. “That was very uncommon in that time.”
In his journal, Frank Peck recalled his father helping as many as seven runaway slaves at one time. He also fondly recalled boyhood memories singing slave spirituals with those hiding at the homestead.
Sheldon Peck’s granddaughter recalled how freedom seekers “hid in barns around the homestead, then carried away the next day in a load of hay on their way to the Canadian border and freedom.”
Fortunately, Peck’s art studio in Chicago provided excellent cover for transporting freedom seekers to the next leg of their journey.
Today, Peck’s paintings can fetch as much as $1 million at auction. His legacy on the Underground Railroad, however, is priceless.
“Sheldon Peck is an absolutely fascinating character and an important figure in history,” Louis says. “But you won’t find him in the history books.”
Robinson, too, encourages people to look beyond the household names of history. As he says: “We’re a lot more than Lincoln.”
[infobox alignment=”full” title=””]Learn more about the Underground Railroad sites mentioned in this story at visitalton.com and lombardhistory.org. And look for a story about New Philadelphia, Ill., the first U.S. town founded by an African-American before the Civil War, in the Spring 2016 edition of Partners.[/infobox]