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New history brings back the role of freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad

One of Larry McClellan’s favorite stories researched while preparing his new book on freedom seekers and the Underground Railroad involved a group of bounty hunters in pursuit of people who had escaped slavery and sought refuge in the Chicago slums.

Hunters sought information from Lewis Isbell, a formerly enslaved man who arrived in Chicago in the 1830s and became the leader of the city’s Black community. Knowing where the people were staying, Ishbell told the men to come back the next day and take them to their hiding place.

McClellan said that when they arrived the next day, the slave hunters were instead met by “all these Black men who were beating them with sticks.”

McClellan said Isbell had instructed the surprise party “not to kill them, but to beat them so badly that they would never return to Chicago.” “It’s a great story.”

McClellan was collect stories About the Underground Railroad for decades. But over the years, his relationship with the Underground Railroad concept has changed dramatically.

“What has become strikingly clear to me is that we really need to reframe the conversation,” he said. “For the 180 years we’ve been talking about the Underground Railroad, the focus has been on the activities of the people helping.

“It’s important to reframe it so we can deeply understand that all this is because of the people who made the decision to escape their slavery. It was this movement of freedom seekers that created the backlash. Eventually, it created backlash from Black and white abolitionists in Illinois and across the North.

That’s a message lost in the years following the Civil War, when being part of a network of aides became fashionable in the North.

“A lot of people – white abolitionists and some Black abolitionists – really got their stories to be told so the information was more visible,” McClellan said.

The press of the late 1800s and early 1900s was full of stories that “glorified these heroic white men who were ready to break the law” in the moral cause against slavery.

“There was a certain amount of danger and we have to honor that,” he said. “But we also need to honor the incredibly dangerous long-distance journeys made by freedom seekers.”

McClellan, in his own words, has been kicking in the area for a long time. He was among the educators who helped organize Governors State University 53 years ago and was mayor of University Park in the 1970s, then known as Park Forest South. His interest in telling Underground Railroad stories is a natural combination of his interest in social justice issues and his fascination with history.

“While trying to understand the history of Chicago Southland, I came across these references to the Underground Railroad. I found it really interesting to have these people in Crete, on the south end of Chicago, in New Lenox, Lockport, and other places helping the Underground Railroad.

“Of course, runaway slaves were passing through, and he was the one they helped, but who were these interesting abolitionists?”

As she dived into these stories and began to do extensive research for previous books, the protagonists began to change, especially when she learned of Caroline Quarlls, whose journey to freedom began in Tennessee and eventually set out through Naperville and Crete. Detroit and Canada.

“We have to tell stories to those who seek freedom,” McClellan said. “Here is the real power. This is where the whole process needs to be humanized.

“Over and over in Underground Railroad narratives, runaway slaves are told of the ways in which people did heroic things to help them. It’s upside down. Truly remarkable stories are those of people who decide to seek their freedom.”

The result of this awareness is “Towards Chicago: Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad in Northeastern Illinois” Fresh from Southern Illinois University Press.

It was also an opportunity to shed new light on a deeply rooted story in Chicago.

“The traditional Chicago story of the Underground Railroad begins in 1839 when a group of brave white men helped this bewildered, distraught emerging fugitive, and they would round him up and help him,” McClellan said.

This narrative likely originated with Zebina Eastman, editor of the abolitionist Western Citizen newspaper.

“The Illinois history books, the Chicago books, they all begin with Eastman’s story in 1839,” he said. “This is not true.”

First, years before that, a Chicago-based Black community, including Lewis Isbell, was already helping freedom-seekers, he said.

And while the tales of the helpers were collected and repeated, the tales of the valiant travelers faded into oblivion.

But many freedom-seeking stories had to be pieced together from a variety of sources, “like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” using material published in the late 19th century and then forgotten.

The newspapers of the 1840s and 50s “while a fascinating resource, were truly a mixed blessing, as many of the stories were fictionalized or overly dramatic.”

The Tribune, for example, “had a lot of stories about people going to Chicago, but you have to read them a little salty.”

McClellan devoted much of his time to the stories of freedom-seekers and their relationship to the region. He has regular talks and will be holding book signing events this fall.

Historian Larry McClellan, center, describes to a tour group in 2019 how the Indiana Avenue bridge over the Little Calumet River on Chicago's Riverdale border became a transit area as freedom seekers flee to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

He is also heavily involved Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project. While she’s adamant that freedom-seekers’ stories should be the focus, it’s also important to get to know the places they’ve traveled. When he gives speeches on Monee, he talks about people’s journeys on the Illinois Central Railroad line that runs through town.

One of McClellan’s favorite places Indiana Boulevard bridge A regular stop on project tours on the Little Calumet River in Riverdale. A place that gives modern people a reference point for their freedom-seeking journey.

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“Every time we do this it’s a powerful experience for me,” he said. “To realize that 500 or more people who are going to freedom are walking right here. How much more attached can you be to one place?

“Often, the trips were messy, but due to a geographical accident, they had to cross the river to get to the bottom of Lake Michigan. This is where that concentration happens.”

Not all the stories in McClellan’s book end in freedom for those who seek it. “We will never know how many people who embarked on this dangerous journey were recaptured, tortured or killed,” he said.

“But that’s part of the whole story,” he said. “Can you imagine the courage it took? Some people walked hundreds of kilometers. The stories are amazing.”

He loves Lewis Isbell’s story, not just for the inherent punishment of bad people being beaten. “One of the great Chicago figures no one has heard of,” Isbell was part of a larger community of “young Black families who became real activists in the 1840s, and the Underground Railroad became a sort of open secret in Chicago.”

“They work closely with a group of young white activists who also work with freedom seekers,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Chicago’s first major Civil Rights movement was not just freedom-seekers on the run, but the racially diverse freedom movement that helped them.”

Landmarks is Paul Eisenberg’s weekly column that explores the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. it can be reached peisenberg@tribpub.com.

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