The Story of the Underground Railroad in Chicago: Historical records offer insight into the Underground Railroad in Chicago, the journey of freedom seekers from slavery
For three decades after Chicago was incorporated in 1833, slavery was legal in the United States. And for as long as slavery existed, there were people trying to escape bondage – often walking hundreds of miles in the hope of finding a safer place to settle.
They sometimes got help on this journey through the Underground Railroad, an informal network with sites in Chicago and throughout Illinois that offered shelter, protection, food, clothing, and supplies. advice to people seeking freedom.
Chicago was transforming from a frontier town into a bustling but still small city in the mid-1800s. Between 1833 and 1850, Chicago’s population grew from around 300 to just under 30,000.
Southern slaves came north to Chicago during this time in search of freedom. Chicago was a city of refuge before 1850. And free blacks played a major role in supporting these freedom seekers as they arrived or passed through the city.
Then, Congress’ passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 fundamentally changed Chicago’s place for those seeking freedom.
Between 1850 and 1865, when slavery was abolished, the role of the city became more complicated. It was still a place where freedom-seeking black people settled and put down roots – getting involved in the growing economy, building social institutions and leading the abolitionist organization.
But, because of the new dangers that arose with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, the city was often seen not as a destination at that time, but as a stopover on the way to greater safety. safe in Canada.
Chicago before the Fugitive Slave Act (1833-1850)
Many freedom seekers reached Chicago by traveling north along the Mississippi River. Following the river provided a useful guide and also made it harder for trackers to find them. Water could wash away footprints and cover odors.
The people who lived along the Mississippi River in the 1830s were more diverse than those in many parts of the United States. Many were white, but there were also free and enslaved blacks and natives. This diversity made it less clear who was enslaved and who was not, and therefore easier for a freedom seeker to go unnoticed.
According to Larry McClellan, professor emeritus of sociology and community studies at Governors State University at University Park, “One of the reasons Chicago became such a big focus for people was because of this Valley culture. Mississippi. The word passed very easily. And so, very early on, word spread all the way to New Orleans that one of the ways to freedom was to go to Chicago.
“And the word is getting to black people living on plantations. And they know that if they can get to the Mississippi Valley and head north, they can find their way to freedom.
Prior to 1850, historians say, Chicago was a relatively safe destination.
“It really was a pretty safe place for the freedom seekers of the Underground Railroad to put down roots and be able to benefit from their work,” says historian and author Glennette Tilley Turner.
Some continued from Chicago to Canada, where slavery had been outlawed since 1834. In general, however, Chicago was considered a city of refuge for black people during this time, as the late historian Lawrence D. Reddick described it.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
The Fugitive Slave Act that Congress passed in September 1850 was part of a set of laws designed to avert a civil war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery states. The Civil War began a little over a decade later.
The Fugitive Slave Act gave slaveholders the right to re-enslave freedom seekers who had escaped and gone north to free states.
It also made aiding bail seekers illegal and punishable by fines or imprisonment. Slaveholders often worked with law enforcement, running newspaper ads offering a reward for capturing freedom seekers and relying on sheriffs to arrest and remove former slaves.
Post-Fugitive Slave Law Chicago (1850-1865)
The Fugitive Slave Act actually made Chicago a more dangerous place for freedom seekers.
Previously, the Underground Railroad helped people get to Chicago. After 1850, the Underground Railroad helped people travel through Chicago to Canada.
According to historian Christopher Robert Reed, many black people who had found freedom in Chicago and had even purchased property fled, leaving behind their homes and possessions.
In his book “Black Chicago’s First Century,” Reed quoted an unnamed “Oldtimer” whose account of living in Chicago as the first black settler was published by the Illinois Record in the late 1890s. According to the ” Oldtimer”, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, “the removal of fugitive slaves by slave owners, assisted by some of the white stockings and the officers of the town, was the chief conversation among our people” .
The Western Citizen, an abolitionist newspaper in Chicago, has occasionally published accounts of attempts to re-enslave Chicago blacks — as well as ways in which anti-slavery citizens might resist the new law.
Historians have identified a handful of places where freedom seekers passing through Chicago sought refuge, including the Tremont House Hotel, the home of abolitionist John Jones and the Quinn Chapel AME Church, all within a few blocks. each other near what is now downtown Chicago.
Quinn Chapel is perhaps Chicago’s best-known Underground Railroad stop. In “Black Chicago’s First Century”, Reed wrote of four female churchgoers – Emma Jane Atkinson, Joanna Hall, “Aunt Charlotte” and a fourth whose name was probably Mary Richardson Jones – who served as conductors. on the Underground Railroad and housed freedom seekers in their homes.
According to genealogist and author Tony Burroughs, who researched the Underground Railroad, there are undoubtedly many places in the city where freedom seekers found refuge or food that were not regular stops on the Underground Railroad and of which we know very little.
“As freedom seekers passed through free states, it was not uncommon for them to sleep in barns or wherever they could on the way north,” says Burroughs. “They even sometimes went inside houses and asked for food if they thought it was safe.”
A quilt story
Larry McClellan says many 20th century accounts of the Underground Railroad in Chicago have been exaggerated.
“The big problem we have with this is that all the time people identify Underground Railroad sites that just aren’t,” McClellan says. “In the 1870s and 80s, after the Civil War, it was a very prestigious thing to be involved in the abolition movement.”
Historians and scholars, including McClellan, Reed, Burroughs, Glennette Tilley Turner, and Karen Lewis, have researched these records and pieced together fragments of this story.
Part of the reason it is so difficult to find records of Underground Railroad activity in Chicago is that the work was dangerous. For freedom seekers, the stakes were incredibly high. People who were caught seeking freedom could be enslaved.
And those who helped them faced fines and incarceration. So there were good reasons not to keep records in the traditional sense.
As a result, the historical record tilts in favor of those who held power: newspaper advertisements of slavers offering rewards to returnee freedom seekers, bills for “services rendered” by law enforcement for the arrest of a former slave.
So while we get a glimpse of the people who risked their lives to seek freedom—and those who helped them—many of their stories remain untold.
contributor: Justine Tobiasz