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Proposed Freedom Trail would mark Underground Railroad sites of significance from Chicago to Detroit

Residents invited to attend planning meeting for the public on Thursday at 4 p.m.

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (September 25, 2023) – A project is in the works to connect historic sites from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan in an official Heritage Trail, marking the path of Freedom Seekers as they traveled from Chicago to Detroit — and ultimately, into Canada — along the Underground Railroad.

Lansing residents are invited to join in establishing this historic trail, and can learn more at an informational planning meeting at South Suburban College on Thursday at 4 p.m.

National Heritage Trail aspirations

Tom Shepherd (left) tells a crowd about the efforts of The Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project after the presentation by Dr. Larry McClellan (right) in 2019. (Photo: Ashlee De Wit)

“We’ll be looking at making a brochure for a marked driving or biking trip [along this trail],” said Tom Shepherd of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, co-host of the meeting. “We want to bring people together, connect the dots, do more research, and eventually get recognition by the National Park Service, to be named a National Heritage Trail. We think the story and history here is strong enough that we have a good argument for creating something like that.”

Shepherd and co-host Larry McClellan — an author, historian, retired professor, and an authority on the local Underground Railroad — are gathering local public figures, members of the tourism industry, students looking for research internships, and other interested local residents to learn more about the history of the local Underground Railroad and mark out the next steps in preserving that history.

Meeting to bring attention to the Freedom Trail

“[The meeting] is, first of all, to bring attention to the Chicago-to-Detroit Freedom Trail,” said Shepherd. “So few people know about the local Underground Railroad history.”

The meeting will include an overview of the history of the Underground Railroad in Chicago’s south suburbs. “This is a really fascinating part of American history, and it happened right in our backyard,” said McClellan.

McClellan and Shepherd have been working for years to spread the word about this local slice of history. They’ve hosted numerous local presentations, hikes and tours of noteworthy local sites on the Freedom Trail. They’ve done work with the National Park Service (NPS) as well, and McClellan’s research was instrumental in getting the Jan and Aagje Ton Farm on the NPS Network to Freedom Registry. The site was dedicated one year ago.

There is much work yet to be done.

Difficulty in the details

“The most important next step [in creating the Chicago-to-Detroit trail] is to really, systematically, document the things that we’re pretty sure of,” McClellan said.

Due to the secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, nailing down specific details of the network can be difficult.

“I’m confident that we’ve been able to identify more than 35 locations between Chicago and Detroit where freedom seekers stopped, were welcomed, and received assistance. These are the spots that became the network of the Underground Railroad. The really big thing we need to do is nail down all that research.”

Community contributions

Interested local residents are invited to contribute, under McClellan’s guidance.

“If you are interested in helping to do some research, we need help!” he said. “We need people who can do some digging, and Thursday’s meeting will outline some of those projects. I’d like to energize some groups — maybe students, maybe local residents, who can make a real contribution to local history.”

The meeting is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. on Thursday, September 28, in the MB Financial room on the first floor at South Suburban College, which is located at 15800 State Street in South Holland.

Ashlee De Wit
Ashlee De Wit
Ashlee De Wit is a freelance writer and a Lansing native. After starting her career covering high school sports in Iowa, she's excited to be back in her hometown, reporting the stories of her local community — such as the opening of Troost, the informal Lansing pickleball club, a TF South Homecoming game, and Common Ground, Lansing's experiment with healthy race relations.