Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Illinois HIstory Book Club
One difference between living in Illinois and living on the West Coast is what a prominent role Civil War history plays in the local community identify. Since I've lived in the Peoria, I've heard rumors about the town being on the Underground Railroad, but just a word here and there, and it's a topic I've wanted to explore more in depth.

Two books about the Underground Railroad found their way home with me from the library this week. The first was The Underground Railroad in Illinois, by Glennette Tilley Turner. Turner's book is written in a question-and-answer style, and she touches on the stories of dozens of freedom seekers and abolitionists. The end effect is a sort of overview of the pre-Civil War era in Illinois without delving into the drama of the personal stories involved.

What the book lacks in storytelling ability, it makes up in detail. Come to find out, Galesburg, a town just up the road from Peoria, was a hotbed for Abolitionist activity, and the Illinois River that runs through Peoria was a path that many escaping slaves took on their way to Canada from slave states just as Missouri and Tennessee. A Peoria abolitionist named Mary Brown Davis formed a Female Anti-Slavery Society in Peoria in 1843, and she was among the founders of the Illinois Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1844. Despite opposition from town members and her own church congregation, she continued writing and speaking against slavery until the Civil War.

Another thing I learned from the book is that the Underground Railroad was more of a loose network than an established path to Canada. Once a "passenger" arrived at a "station," they assessed what was the safest way to continue on to the next stop. So, If word was that slave hunters were on the river, the freedom seeker would head along another route.

The second book that followed me home from the library was Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The book drew my eye with it's color photographs of 19th century quilts. I've seen some beautiful African American quilts with great improvisational style, vivid color, and flowing forms, and I've read Alice Walkers "Everyday Use," but it hadn't occurred to me that quilt making could have played a role in the search for freedom. According to this book, quilts with certain patterns and color schemes hung over window sills to "air" could have singled save houses along the way to Canada. Quilts could also have signaled when it was time for slaves to pack up and prepare to leave, and they may have been used as a sort of map.

The book is based primarily on oral histories because there are very few quilts made by slaves that have withstood the years and the lye soap. The examples from the book were mostly made in the period immediately following the Civil War. The book did point out that more slave-made quilts could be discovered because old quilts were often used as the batting for new quilts. It's fascinating to view a domestic art that is often viewed as mere "women's work" as a vital lifeline to freedom.

P.S. I just read last night's blog entry and realized I cursed. My! I must have been in a mood last night!

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