Sand Ridge Nature Center hosts Underground Railroad walks

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Underground Railroad
The Sand Ridge Nature Center hosted an Underground Railroad walk on Saturday, February 26. (Photo: Jennifer Yos)

Center hosts self-guided Underground Railroad tour to close out Black History Month

By Jennifer Yos

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (March 2, 2022) – In participation of Black History Month, the Sand Ridge Nature Center hosted its annual Underground Railroad Walks on Saturday, February 26. The free event was hosted at the Sand Ridge Nature Center’s main campus, located at located at 15891 Paxton Avenue in South Holland.

Walking the Underground Railroad

A self-guided trail walk included North star markers, to give participants a feel for the difficulty of navigating one’s way to freedom. (Photo: Jennifer Yos)

In a self-guided outdoor walk, visitors followed the Sand Ridge Nature Center’s one-half mile Redwing Trail on an imagined journey with a fictional freedom-seeking slave named Cecilia — a character created to describe and personalize the real-life experiences of an estimated 3,000–4,500 enslaved Black men, women, and children who had traveled the St. Louis-to-Chicago Underground Railroad route in the 1800s.

The St. Louis-to-Chicago route was one of many Underground Railroad routes that involved secretly transporting and protecting enslaved individuals away from southern slave states to havens of freedom like Chicago, Detroit, and Ontario, Canada. These routes actually were neither underground nor railroads, but were trails of safe homes, barns, churches, and businesses that led, according to some estimates, 100,000 enslaved people to freedom between the years 1810 and 1850.

Underground Railroad
This map show Underground Railroad routes throughout the country. (Graphics provided by Sand Ridge Nature Center)

Sand Ridge Nature Center’s Underground Railroad walk included six placarded “stations” along the Redwing Trail, each representing safe stops in Illinois along the St. Louis-to-Chicago Underground Railroad route, including the towns of Brooklyn, Alton, Bloomington, Crete, and Riverdale. At each station, participants read Cecilia’s diary-style written experiences — both harrowing and hopeful — and learned what was needed for freedom seekers to survive and succeed in their journey to freedom.

The North Star symbol markers on trees along the trail allowed participants to contemplate the lengthy and perilous journeys of runaway slaves who depended on the North Star for direction at night.

The Nature Center’s authentic pioneer cabins helped participants imagine what it must have been like for runaway families to be crowded together into small single-room cabins.

Sand Ridge Nature Center’s pioneer cabins helped put the journey northward into perspective. (Photo: Jennifer Yos)

Black History exhibits

The Sand Ridge Nature Center also provided an indoor Black History Month Exhibit that featured Black men and women who were instrumental in creating and sustaining the Underground Railroad. A Black History timeline display included important facts about slavery in America, the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation, and progress and setbacks with the Civil Rights Movement.

An indoor exhibit explains the debated theory that quilts were used as signals for freedom-seekers. (Photo: Jennifer Yos)

Another part of the indoor exhibit presented quilt designs alleged to have been used as coded messages of navigation and warning for freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad routes, though it also noted that many scholars dispute the coded quilts story entirely as myth.

The indoor exhibit explained a direct geographical connection between the Underground Railroad and the Sand Ridge Nature Center. The High Toleston Shoreline Ridge — an ancient beach ridge which today includes Michigan City Road at the north end of the Sand Ridge property — was part of the Chicago-Detroit road used by thousands of freedom seekers en route from the Calumet region to Detroit and Canada.

Additional local maps explained how Sauk Trail in Richton Park was part of the Underground Railroad and how the Village of Glenwood, originally founded as Hickory Bend, was a stop where runaway slaves and their conductors would stay before moving on.

The Sand Ridge Nature Center is located at 15891 Paxton Avenue in South Holland.

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Jennifer Yos grew up on Walter Street in Lansing with nine siblings. She attended St. Ann’s School and T.F. South, and she earned a BA in the Teaching of English from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a MS in Education: Curriculum and Instruction from the University of St. Francis, Joliet. For 34 years she taught English, as well as Creative Writing and Drama, at Lincoln-Way High School. She dabbled in freelance journalism for the Joliet Herald News Living section. Now retired, Jennifer appreciates the opportunity to write for The Lansing Journal and is uplifted by the variety of positive people she has already met who are making a difference in Lansing.