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New Initiative From Chicago-Based Nature Conservancy Is Highlighting Little Known River’s Role In Underground Railroad

New Initiative From Chicago-Based Nature Conservancy Is Highlighting Little Known River’s Role In Underground Railroad

A slice of history is in Chicago's backyard!

A new initiative from a Chicago-based nature conservancy highlights a little-known river's role in the Underground Railroad, BBC Travel reports. 

Openlands is a Chicago-based nature conservancy that recently launched an initiative, the "African American Heritage Water Trail," to highlight the role Chicago's Little Calumet River played in the Underground Railroad. Openlands aquatic ecologist Laura Barghusen said the idea for a trail first began in the 1990s. Barghusen co-authored a plan to offer public access for canoeing and kayaking to 10 different waterways in the Chicago region. In 1999, the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission adopted the project, and Openlands began exploring uses for the Calumet River region. 

"We started thinking about how to offer guided trips or cleanups, events that people could join without having a boat. We also started thinking about other ways to attract people to the waterways," Barghusen said. 

The organization began planning sessions with local historians and community members in 2018. They then discovered that Little Calumet was an unsung hero of the Underground Railroad and the backdrop for many Black historic achievements over the years. It span 109 miles and travels through several South Side Chicago neighborhoods. The Little Calumet river connected the East, West, and South, allowing for the flow of information, goods, and those seeking freedom in the 1800s. The river flows north from the Mississippi River Valley, leading to Detroit and eventually to Canada. It was used to spearhead Chicago's development and helped transport hundreds of Black people north to freedom as a major stop on the Underground Railroad. 

The new African American Heritage Water Trail runs alongside the river, featuring 29 stops and a seven-mile route, leading participants through several South Side communities and suburbs. The tour teaches them about important moments in Black Chicago history along the way.

The important figures and locations spotlighted on the trail include Marshall "Major" Taylor, the world's first Black sports star and champion bicycle rider. The site of the former Robbins Airport, the first Black-owned and operated airport which also taught some Tuskegee Airmen and a street renamed for Hazel Johnson, widely considered the mother of the modern environmental justice movement. 

This past August, Openlands partnered with Friends of the Chicago River, who provided canoes for a group to explore the trail. Tiffany Watkins, a Chicago Public Schools educator, and her two daughters were on that trip alongside a dozen others. Watkins and her husband both grew up on Chicago's South Side and had never known the river's rich history. She said she felt honored to travel the same waterways where so many of her ancestors from the diaspora had traveled, risking their lives to get to freedom.

"I love that term, 'freedom seekers,' because it gives a different connotation to the people who came before us. Had they not sought freedom, who knows where we would have been to this day. So, I'm grateful for them," Watkins said. 

The group paddled the river themselves in canoes as Openlands' education and community outreach coordinator Lillian Holden outlined details about the tour stops. In addition to being a stop on the Underground Railroad, the river tour also leaves from Chicago's Finest Marina, one of the oldest Black-owned marina's in Chicago. Holden is a Chicago native herself who also had no idea of the rich history of the Calumet River and is excited to offer a different immersive learning experience to native Chicagoans. 

"A lot of times, being Black in America is not easy. It's really hard existing when you, in some cases, have to assimilate to other cultures in order to put food on the table. So being taught about [trailblazers] who defy odds and rewrote the rules is a very invigorating experience. I come from public school education, and we're taught about slavery and stuff like that, but also we're taught about people who essentially took over areas. It's not really focused enough on Black people who have done significant things," Holden said. 

The trail is an ongoing process, and Openlands just received a grant from the Chicago Community Trust to help build out an online brochure and self-guided map. Currently, there are occasional guided paddles open to the public, but they're hoping to expand to more in the future, offering trips like the one Watkins and her daughters took. Currently, the map can be downloaded by those who have their own kayak or canoe and are willing to explore the waterway on their own or walk or bike the various sites along the trail.

Historian Larry McClellan is also working with Chicago's Finest Marina owner, Ron Gaines, to identify and install historical markers along the route, on land, and in the water. Recently, the two were granted $9,600 by the National Park Service to install historical signs along with the Ton Farm, one of the Underground Railroad stops along the waterway. The farm owners Jan and Aagje Ton were Dutch-born abolitionists who housed freedom seekers in their home during the 1850s. The farm has been recognized as a site of national significance by the National Park Service. 

Watkins said the trail helped her discover this history and made her think about her own mother's journey, who was born in Arkansas and recently passed away. The tour deepened the connection to her ancestors, and she encouraged everyone to visit the trail.

"Everybody wants to go downtown, which you should, but for a little bit of history, oh my God. I can't believe we have this here in our backyard. We want to learn more. We want to do more. We want to tell more people about this place," said Watkins. 

To learn more about the African American Heritage Water Trail, visit here

Photo Courtesy of Openlands