Underground Railroad in IL

NOTE: We are thrilled that this lesson plan and our films about the UGRR in Alton and about Elijah Lovejoy have been adopted by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Illinois Extension to aid in their development of a free educational resource called “Freedom Seekers” under the guidance of Haider Mehdi, Post-Baccalaureate Fellow.

Curriculum: U.S. history. African American History.

Lesson Objectives:
(1) To understand the historical context of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

(2) To learn about the distribution of captive Africans in the Americas
(3) To evaluate the ways that centuries of enslaved labor enabled the economic development of the United States and its tragic consequences for those subjected to it
(4) To learn about the network of formal and informal operations involved in the escape from bondage, known as the Underground Railroad
(5) To understand the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and how it affected the UGRR in Illinois after 1850
(6) To identify some of the local “stations” and “conductors” along the Underground Railroad in Illinois and the role they played
(7) To learn which towns in Illinois have evidence of the Underground Railroad


1. Introduction
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, over 12 million people are estimated to have been taken captive from their homelands in Africa, separated from their families and shipped as human cargo in deplorable conditions across the Atlantic Ocean. They were destined for ports across Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the United States to become labor in the extractive plantation economies that European colonial powers were developing. Enslaved labor was used to produce products like sugar, coffee, rice, cotton and other commodities to supply markets in both Europe and the New World.

This system denied captive Africans and their enslaved descendants their basic human rights. Especially in the 19th century leading up to the Civil War and most especially in the officially slave-holding states, the terrible work and living conditions and the violence inflicted upon slaves led many to seek secret ways of escaping bondage through the Underground Railroad. In the United States slavery was not outlawed until 1865 with 13th Amendment of the Constitution.

2. The Underground Railroad:
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. Rather, the Underground Railroad refers to a network of people and places through which enslaved African Americans (known as Freedom Seekers) escaped bondage throughout the antebellum and Civil War period. These efforts to escape the conditions of slavery are examples of self-emancipation (the active escape from slavery). The Underground Railroad consisted of both deliberate and spontaneous acts of defiance to aid in these escape efforts. Many Freedom Seekers set out to escape without the aid of formal partners or plans, while others were made aware of formal operatives that could assist in their efforts, often through networks built through family and friends or faith groups. It is considered “underground” because these efforts were kept hidden to avoid capture.

While the underground railroad was not an actual railroad, its network stretched across the United States and Canada, and even to portions of the Caribbean and Latin America: wherever freedom seekers could find safe refuge. Refuge came in the form of maroon communities (settlements of escaped slaves) in the Caribbean and in Brazil, and in safe houses in the northern states of the U.S., or Canada where slavery was outlawed. This network consisted of the extraordinary efforts of the thousands of enslaved and freed peoples, and white people opposed to the horrors of servitude.

In the United States, the metaphor of a “railroad” tied together the network of safe houses known as “stations” and operatives who were responsible for coordinating the movement of slaves and who were known as “conductors,” among other codes. Among the most famous “conductors” of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery herself in 1849. She went on to aid in the escape of countless dozens of slaves, as well as in the war efforts of African American Union forces during the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad was particularly trafficked after 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, passed by the U.S. Congress, incentivized the capture and return of escaped slaves, often leading to the capture of already freed slaves even in northern “free” states. This time became especially dangerous for peoples of African descent in both “free” and “slave” states. It pushed the Underground Railroad to extend further into Canada and anywhere where freedom could be more safely ensured.

Though these operations were highly secretive because of their elicit nature, we know about them through various sources. First, an oral tradition has passed down through generations, preserving the memory of these stories of persistence and heroism. Some written records also shed light on these histories, including newspaper stories that may have arisen, court documents from prosecutions, records from churches, faith groups, abolitionist societies, and even personal diaries or journals. Researching these sources can help to illuminate the extraordinary efforts of thousands who risked it all to escape bondage and preserve their memory for future generations.

3. The Underground Railroad in Illinois:
While states like Illinois were “free” by 1818, racial tensions still often flared between abolitionists and those in favor of maintaining the system of slavery. Additionally, the Mississippi River gave Illinois the longest border with slave states, notably Missouri, a slave state. The Mississippi thus became an important obstacle, as well as symbol of hope, since crossing over into Illinois was a significant step toward reaching Canada and other northern destinations. “Stations” across the state are therefore important sites in preserving the memory of the Underground Railroad in Illinois and across the country.

In this lesson we focus on two particular Illinois towns, Alton and Jacksonville, whose residents provided direct assistance and developed political movements that fought for the abolition of slavery. The conductors were both Black and White residents, all of whom risked their well-being to challenge the insidious system of slavery, though it was often only White abolitionists who are remembered as a result of more documented actions and record keeping.

There are at least 9 known sites considered to be stops along the Underground Railroad in the Alton-Godfrey area of Illinois. Located just over the Mississippi River from Missouri, a “slave” state, the Alton-Godfrey route of the UGRR became a crucial section for Freedom Seekers looking to find safe haven along their journey north. Along with the areas of Chester, Quincy, and Cairo, IL, Alton-Godfrey was a major entry point over the river for Freedom seekers. Among the best known “stations” in Alton is the Old Stone House where the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society was first established in 1837. According to oral histories, two black communities at Rocky Fork and the Wood River Station area played important roles offering assistance to Freedom Seekers on the route north. The Rocky Fork location may have been a stop for Freedom Seekers as early as 1816.

Jacksonville, IL was also an important stop along the UGRR as it became an important center for abolitionist thought and safe houses to facilitate safer transport. A former slave named Benjamin Henderson, for example, went to Jacksonville in 1841 where he began assisting enslaved peoples on their journey to freedom. Other sites like Woodlawn Farm and Gillett House (the home of abolitionist Dr. Bezalell Gillett) were additional safe havens. Also in Jacksonville, Illinois College was an important influence in the abolitionist movement, particularly through the efforts of its first president, Edward Beecher, and additional faculty members. These efforts created a significant engine for abolitionist cause and a friendly route for Freedom Seekers traveling to Chicago for transport north.

One of the most remarkable UGRR conductors was Priscilla Baltimore (1801-1882). She was born a slave but, like Frank McWorter (see New Philadelphia), she was able to purchase her freedom and later that of her enslaved mother. At tremendous personal risk she brought eleven families across the Mississippi River from Missouri to Brooklyn, which was called “Freedom Village” at the time. It is Brooklyn’s direct association with the Underground Railroad from the 1820s that inspired its motto: “Founded by Chance, Sustained by Courage.” The town began as a settlement of escaped slaves. Priscilla Baltimore is to Brooklyn what Frank McWorter is to New Philadelphia, and what both are to an American history that must include minority heroes whose legacy endures and informs contemporary events and historical knowledge.

What was the scale of human movement involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the U.S. slave trade?
Q2. In what ways was the Mississippi River a dangerous, but essential boundary in the history of the Underground Railroad in Illinois?
Q3. How did the states bordering Illinois influence the routes of the UGRR in Illinois?
Q4. What was the scale of economic dependence on enslaved laborers throughout the early history of the United States?
Q5. What were the risks involved in attempting to escape slavery?
Q6. What do you think the diverse groups of African peoples would have brought with them culturally? Do we see these influences today? How might archaeology or oral histories shed light on these histories of cultural expressions?
Q7. In what ways do you think that the Underground Railroad may have been both secret, and also not so secret?
Q8. Records are easier to locate related to White abolitionists than for former slaves. What might explain this?

1) View the time-lapse video showing the movement of slave ships across the Atlantic ocean between the years 1515-1866 (https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/database#timelapse). Students answer these questions:
* Around what years does the slave trade intensify to the United States?
* Which colonial powers are part of the capture and shipping of slaves?
* Knowing the years of most intense trading, what effects do you think the slave trade had on the economy of the British colonies and the new United States nation?
* How might the economic success of the United States have relied on the suffering of the millions of enslaved Africans?
2) Study the National Park Service’s website for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/index.htm
3) Discuss how the efforts of White and Black abolitionists could be be remembered (and preserved) differently today.

Based on your knowledge of sites and figures in Illinois that were key to the Underground Railroad network, think about how you might construct an ILLINOIS Heritage Narrative to celebrate and preserve their memory as important testaments to the struggles for freedom and their legacies today. Consider these points:
1) What “stations” and “conductors” would you feature? Why?
2) How do you think you might find out more about their histories, considering the secretive nature of the UGRR?
3) What sources of information could you consult to get a deeper understanding?4) What stories might you choose to tell? How would you tell them? Museum, video, social media campaign, document compilations, archaeological investigations?
5) What would your overall goal and messaging be?

Knowing the history of several “stations” along the Underground Railroad in Illinois, research how the Illinois “line” was connected to events, laws, movements, geography in other portions of the United States between the 1840s and the post-Civil War period. Contextualize the Illinois portion within the broader United States.

Doyle, Don Harrison. The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois, 1825-70. University of Illinois Press, 1983
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. 2000. “The Underground Railroad in Illinois: Special Issue.” Historic Illinois, 22(6). https://web.archive.org/web/20150909224105/http://www.lovejoyhomestead.com/pdfdocuments/hiall.pdf
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. 2000.Owen Lovejoy: Illinois Abolitionist.” In “The Underground Railroad in Illinois: Special Issue.” Historic Illinois, 22(6). https://web.archive.org/web/20150909224105/http://www.lovejoyhomestead.com/pdfdocuments/hiall.pdf
National Park Service. N.d. The Underground Railroad in Lincoln’s Neighborhood. https://www.nps.gov/liho/planyourvisit/upload/Jenkins%20Site%20Bulletin.pdf
National Park Service. N.d. Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/index.htm
The New York Public Library Digital Collections https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/search/index?utf8=%E2%9C%93&keywords=underground+railroad
Voyages Database 2009. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database