Sheldon Peck Homestead and the Underground Railroad

In United States history, a person became a member of the “Underground Railroad” if he or she assisted slaves from the Southern states to escape to free areas where slavery was illegal (often the Northern states or Canada).  Nobody had to formally join an organization called the Underground Railroad to become a member.  The phrase was more of an allegorical term for the many people who assisted runaway slaves until 1863.  Members of the Underground Railroad did not solely consist of white abolitionists, but also included former slaves.  For example, the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was runaway slave Harriet Tubman, who in ten years, repeatedly returned South to help bring approximately 300 slaves to freedom.  (The new 2019 film Harriet is about this, and is worth watching.)

In 1998, the United States National Park Service began the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, which requires them to identify and preserve sites throughout the United States that were involved in the Underground Railroad.  However, since participation in the Underground Railroad was a clandestine activity, it is not easy to find documentation of who was involved.  This was especially the case after the Fugitive Slave Acts were passed in 1793, and then further enforced in 1850.  These laws punished those who assisted runaway slaves, and allowed Southerners to search for and recapture their runaway slaves in the free North.

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom has documented 626 Underground Railroad sites in the United States so far (as of the end of 2019).  A map depicting how many sites are currently documented in each state can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm

Ohio and Maryland currently tie for the most sites: 83.  Next comes New York with 66, Pennsylvania with 54, and Virginia with 41.  Illinois ranks at number 9 with 24 sites.  I have visited two Illinois sites so far, the Sheldon Peck Homestead and Wheaton College.  Both are in the western suburbs of Chicago in Du Page County, which also has a few other sites. 

Sheldon Peck was a farmer and folk artist.  He built his home in rural Lombard, Illinois in 1839, and eventually opened up his home to be used as the first school in the area.  He was also a radical abolitionist (meaning that he wanted the immediate rather than gradual cessation of slavery) and worked as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad.  The evidence of his involvement comes from his son’s oral testimony and diary.  Historians currently believe that the runaway slaves hid in his barn, which no longer stands, and not in his home, which does still stand.  This home is currently owned by the Lombard Historical Society.  It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-4 and Saturdays from 10-2 (however, it is closed in December and January).  Admission is free.

Sheldon Peck Homestead located at 355 E Parkside Ave. Lombard, IL 60148.

Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois was founded by Wesleyan Methodist abolitionists in 1860.  Its first president was a staunch abolitionist named Jonathan Blanchard, who was also the College’s first president.  According to a sign about Wheaton College’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, located in the campus’ oldest building, Blanchard Hall, Wheaton became the first college in Illinois to graduate African Americans.  Blanchard Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall located at 501 College Ave. Wheaton, IL 60187.

Bonus Photo

Scotsman, Allan Pinkerton, is known as the founder of one of the first detective agencies in the United States. He helped prevent an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln. However, his home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, as is attested by his wonderful tombstone at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Sources and Further Reading

“About the Network to Freedom.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Blanchard Hall.” Wheaton College. https://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/visit-wheaton/campus-buildings/blanchard-hall/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Harriet Tubman.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Path to Freedom on Illinois’ Underground Railroad.” Enjoy Illinois. https://www.enjoyillinois.com/travel-illinois/illinois-underground-railroad/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“The Pinkertons.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/august-25/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1281.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Lombard Historical Society. https://www.lombardhistory.org/ugrr (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Underground%20Railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Wheaton College. http://a2z.my.wheaton.edu/underground-railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).

International Museum of Surgical Science

“At Home in Chicago” is a consortium of over 20 mansions in the Chicago area that are open to the public.  One of these mansions was built for a wealthy Chicago family in 1917, and faces Lake Shore Drive.  Since 1954, this mansion has housed the International Museum of Surgical Science, which is owned by the International College of Surgeons. This latter group’s purpose statement is: ” Promoting excellence of surgeons and surgical specialists worldwide.” It was founded by a surgeon named Dr. Max Thorek.

Thorek’s grave is at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. Since I found his grave by accident, I decided to include it here.

When I visited the museum, I had low expectations, because I thought that it would either be boring or disturbing.  However, I ended up loving my visit. In the past, the museum solely focused on the history of surgery, but now, the scope has widened to medical history in general.

Each room in this gigantic mansion focuses on a different topic.  For instance, one room solely focuses on the medical history of eyes, so the displays include a variety of eyeglasses and eyepieces used throughout history.  Another room focuses on pain and painkillers used throughout history.  From that exhibit, I learned that the drug “Heroin” received its name, because in the late nineteenth century, it was considered a “heroic” drug that cured many ailments. Of course, there was also a room about the history of surgery, and included scary saws and tools that were used to perform surgeries in the past.

One of the rooms that I found the most interesting was devoted to the history of how radiation has been used for medical purposes.  Unfortunately, the pioneers in that field had premature deaths, because they received radiation poisoning by x-raying themselves so much.  X-rays were often used to treat all kinds of medical problems.  The museum even had an x-ray machine that was used at shoe stores to measure people’s foot sizes.  While I was looking at that display (this was in 2018), I overheard an elderly woman telling someone how she remembered having her foot measured that way when she would go shoe shopping with her mother.  Because the negative side effects of radiation do not appear immediately, people used it unwisely for a long time.  It makes me wonder if we are currently using a new technology unwisely, but will not realize how dangerous it is until several decades later.

The museum’s library contains approximately 1,000 books.

Other noteworthy features at the museum include an impressive library of old medical books (not accessible to the general public) and ancient Peruvian heads with holes in them, showing that surgery has been done for centuries.  The only downside to this museum is that if you do not enjoy reading signs, you may not enjoy this museum as much, since it is not very interactive.  However, the museum does offer tours on Thursdays.  Also, it should be noted that on Tuesdays, the museum is free for Illinois residents.

Sources and Further Reading

“The History.” International Museum of Surgical Science. https://imss.org/the-history/ (accessed October 24, 2019).

DuSable Museum of African American History

After the American Civil War, freed slaves began migrating to the northern United States.  This trend continued into the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Ku Klux Klan revived in 1915, and as African Americans in the South sought better job opportunities in the North.  The migration of African Americans to the North between 1910 to 1960 is known as the “Great Migration.”  Because of the Great Migration, the two cities with the largest African American populations are located in the North: New York City and Chicago, respectively.

Because Chicago has a rich African American history, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened up in Chicago in 1961.  The museum originally began in the home of its founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, but in 1971, moved to its current home, which is a beautiful building that used to be an administration and police lockup facility.  Located on the South Side of Chicago, where most African Americans live, the museum is named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Hatian trader who is considered the first permanent non-Native American resident of Chicago.

The main exhibit of the museum provides a timeline of African American history, beginning with the slave trade, but then eventually narrows down to Chicago’s African American history.  One aspect of Chicago’s African American history that the museum highlights is the Pullman Car Company, which used to hire African Americans as porters on its trains, and paid them better than many other jobs that hired African Americans at the time.  The museum also mentions the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched when he went to visit relatives in Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a white woman.  This tragedy, which occurred in 1955, was one of the many injustices of the South that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. actually visited Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1965, he was invited to Chicago to address the segregation there, and started what became the Chicago Freedom Movement.  If you would like to learn more about Chicago’s unfair housing situation during that time, read or watch Lorraine Hansberry’s famous 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun.  Unfortunately, the violence and poverty of Chicago’s South Side would probably not be in such a sad state if African Americans had been integrated equally in Chicago when they first arrived.  Chicago’s historic practice of housing segregation is why such a large number of African Americans live south of the Chicago River in the first place.

In 1965, the northern Chicago suburb of Winnetka invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak there, because it had segregated housing rules at the time. You can see this plaque at the Winnetka Village Green.

Chicago is considered by some to be the birthplace of modern gospel music. The first gospel choir was begun in 1931 in an African American church called Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which is still an active church today.

4501 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653

This church attests to how the South Side has historically been the home of Chicago’s immigrants. Before being an African American neighborhood, Bronzeville was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Note that the Church’s cornerstone is using the Jewish year (which is based on rabbinic calculations of the Bible’s genealogies) rather than the Gregorian calendar.  It used to be a synagogue called Temple Isaiah. In case you’re wondering, 5659 is 1898.

Some famous African American jazz musicians lived in Chicago for a while. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood has the homes of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. They are still lived in, and not open to the public.

Nat King Cole’s Chicago home: 4023 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653
Louis Armstrong’s Chicago home: 421 E. 44th St. Chicago, IL 60653

One final exhibit at the DuSable Museum that I thought was kind of fun was an animatronic of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, who served from 1983 to 1987.  The exhibit has Harold Washington talking to you.

If you want to learn more about Chicago’s African American history, then the DuSable Museum is a great place to start.

Sources and Further Reading

Bada, Ferdinand. “Cities with the Largest African-American Populations.” WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/cities-with-the-largest-african-american-populations.html (accessed October 26, 2019). 

“DuSable Museum of African-American History.” The New York Times, January 30, 2013. https://archive.is/20130130235748/http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/north-america/united-states/illinois/chicago/attraction-detail.html?vid=1154654606497#selection-1415.0-1415.42  (accessed October 26, 2019).

“The Great Migration.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/The-Great-Migration.pdf (accessed October 26, 2019).

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Landers, Betsy. “Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka.” Winnetka Historical Society. http://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/martin-luther-king-jr-in-winnetka/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

“Museum History.” The DuSable Museum of African American History. https://www.dusablemuseum.org/museum-history/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

Ralph, James. “Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1438.html (accessed October 26, 2019).