The perilous journey of escape from enslavement during 19th century America ran through DeKalb County. Freedom wasn’t a destination in northern Illinois but it was a much needed stop on the clandestine “Underground Railroad.”
One of Sycamore’s former leading ladies, Nancy Beasley, now a resident of Portage in Wisconsin has written a book about DeKalb County’s abolitionists involved in the antislavery movement from about 1840 to 1860.
Some of the escaping enslaved coming through DeKalb County were headed to Chicago for transport to Canada. Others continued on to Wisconsin and Michigan.
Under the draconian “Black Law” of 1853 no black from another state could remain within the Illinois borders for more than ten days. Beyond ten days and he or she was subject to arrest, confinement in jail, and a $50 fine and removal from the state. If unable to pay the fine, the law directed the sheriff to auction the offending African-American to the bidder willing to pay the costs and the tine and to work the “guilty” party the fewest number of days.
During that period much of the county was a hotbed for Abolition activities. The area Congregationalist, Universalist, Presbyterian and Wesleyan Methodist churches all had strong antislavery views. For some membership required a signatory pledge to oppose slavery.
DeKalb County had the highest concentration of subscriptions to the Chicago-based Western Citizen antislavery newspaper. Despite extensive research Beasley was unable to find one person prosecuted for aiding a fugitive slave in DeKalb County, Illinois.
Even the sheriff looked the other way when fellow church members, county elected officials, and the Underground Railroad conductors and stationmasters were all one and the same.
Nancy M. Beasley, graduate of Northern Illinois University in music and vocal performance, is a civic and social organizer who has served on numerous boards including the Illinois State Police Merit Board. She was a longtime administrative aide to John Countryman when he served in the Illinois General Assembly.
The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County Illinois is now available through publisher McFarland & Co. as well as Amazon.com.