When Illinois state Sen. Napoleon Harris (15th District) was a boy, he would play near the Little Calumet River, a few blocks from his house on 133rd Street, throwing rocks in the river and running around noticing broken boats.
He had no idea he was on a site that was once a safe haven for enslaved people who were escaping north between the 1830s and the Civil War, he said during a marker dedication ceremony of the former Underground Railroad site at Chicago’s Finest Marina, 577 E. 134th Place.
“It’s bittersweet because I saw what this place used to be,” Harris said. “And now to see it today, it brings joy to my heart to see what Mr. Gaines has done with the property. And to see the historic value that as a kid I didn’t know existed.”
Ronald Gaines, a retired sergeant of the Chicago Police Department, owns Chicago’s Finest Marina. Formerly the Ton Farm, the site was a place where freedom seekers sought refuge. The Ton family was one of several Dutch families that settled in the area between 1847 and 1849.
People escaping the South used what was known as the “Riverdale Crossing,” now the Indiana Avenue Bridge just west of the marina, then sought refuge and rest with Dutch settlers helping them before they continued north to Chicago or Detroit and eventually Canada.
About four years ago, Larry McLellan, professor emeritus of Governors State University, called Gaines to tell him about the history of the property, Gaines told a crowd of about 100 people on Saturday afternoon.
McLellan was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and studied at the University of Ghana in West Africa. He made it his life’s work to study and teach African American history, wanting to explore how Black and white people come to understand each other and each other’s history, he said.
“Black history matters,” McLellan said. “Because it enriches all of our history.”
Since making that phone call to Gaines, McLellan has worked with local leaders and community residents to highlight the history of the marina on Chicago’s Far South Side, forming the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project.
In 2019, the Jan and Agje Ton Farm became part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom program, which recognizes Underground Railroad locations across the nation.
On Saturday, an Illinois State Historical Society marker was unveiled.
At Saturday’s ceremony, members of the project were joined by local and state government representatives, descendants of the Ton family, nearby residents and other supporters.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said the Underground Railroad symbolizes not just the historic acts of bravery, but also a collective strength of what can be accomplished when people work together to face challenges.
“We stand here, proud, humbled, and hopeful that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Stratton said. “You see, we look back into the past to help inform our future.”
Stratton visited the site two years ago as she was learning about Black history. Her journey, she said, took her to parts of the Underground Railroad in Illinois, deepening her understanding of the discomfort and pain people faced on their path to freedom.
“The work of liberating others is never easy, but it’s always worth it,” Stratton said. “Here at Ton Farm, I was reminded that wherever slavery and bondage existed, so did courageous efforts to escape, often assisted by regular people, like all of us here today.”
The new historic marker, she said, will give people the opportunity to sit with and understand the struggle of the past but also understand the hope the site represents.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, whose district includes the site, said the Underground Railroad provides important lessons for current and future generations. She said she hopes people who learn about and visit the site will be encouraged and inspired.
“Besides the educational and cultural value, these sites serve as a reminder of our nation’s hateful history, and of why we can never go back to those ways,” Kelly said. “These sites serve as an inspiration to always do what is right no matter the risk.”
After the unveiling, people ate a light meal and visited the marina; children ran around as adults talked. A woman led a group in yoga, and others walked around a room where an art exhibit titled “Witness” by artists Mama Edie Armstrong and Nathan Miller was on display.
Portraits of Black youths were spread around the room; on the back of each portrait was an “I am from …” poem written by the youth in the portrait. The youths were participants of the summer’s Witness program at the Altgeld Library.
“These works are a continuation of their ancestors’ stories of Black liberation,” a description of the art exhibit said.
Kelly Flowers, assistant principal at W.E.B. Du Bois Elementary School, took her 4-year-old granddaughter to the event. She said she was excited to learn about the history of the site within walking distance of the school. Flowers said she plans to share what she learned with social studies teachers so they can incorporate it in their curriculum. She also plans to share what she learned with her network of educators in other South Side schools.
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“To just know you live in a historical area, how profound is that?” Flowers said. “For them to be proud of where they are actually get the information about where they are and who they are, where they come from. And that it’s touchable, it’s reachable. So for me, this was huge.”
Nearby residents who visited the ceremony, and some who stopped by for what they thought was Marina Days, where the marina is open to the public and offers food and family activities, said they were surprised to learn of its history.
“All these years I never knew,” said Danasha Thomas, who went to the marina with her daughter and stepchildren after the ceremony. Thomas said it was important for people to know about their history and was excited to learn about the new marker out front of the marina entrance.
Gaines, the marina owner, plans to continue working with McLellan and members of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project to open the marina to the public and offer tours and other ways to continue educating people on its historical significance.
“If we don’t learn about our past, it takes away from our future,” Gaines said. “And I think even though slavery was something we never focus on being up north, that it’s kind of rewarding to know that we up here had an active part in the survival of freedom seekers.”
McLellan said it was “deeply satisfying” to see so many people attend the dedication and confirm what he’s always known — that Black history is important. A lot of people have told him, “I didn’t know that happened here,” he said, adding that he’s glad he’s been able to share that history with people.
“History isn’t some distant thing,” McLellan said. “History is right here in our backyards. I mean, good Lord, we’re standing right where people who were running for their lives, they stood in this right, same spot.”
This content was originally published here.