EAST SIDE — A Southeast Side site that was part of the Underground Railroad is having a sign dedication event this Saturday.
The Jan and Aagje Ton Farm was the first Underground Railroad site in Chicago to be recognized by the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom project. The farm once provided a safe harbor to people who had been enslaved but escaped to freedom.
A sign marking that history will be unveiled and dedicated 1 p.m. Saturday at the Black-owned Chicago’s Finest Marina, 557 E. 134th Place, where the Ton Farm once stood.
“It’s part of our long effort — almost a 20-year effort — to showcase and bring awareness to the Ton Farm site, which was an important stop on the Underground Railroad back before the Civil War and emancipation,” said Tom Shepherd, one of the project’s volunteers.
At the event, people can hear about the history of the site, which is managed by the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, a volunteer-run organization that researches the history of the underground railroad in Chicago’s Calumet region. Rep. Robin Kelly will give a speech.
Larry McClellan, a historian and retired professor who leads the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, submitted the farm to the Network to Freedom in 2019. The site was approved the same year.
There was a celebration at the time, but now the Illinois State Historical Society marker is in place, making the site an “official deal,” McClellan said.
Only one other site in Chicago has been recognized by the program: Graceland Cemetery, 4001 N. Clark St., which became part of the network in 2021, according to the network’s online database.
But many more spots in Chicago and Illinois served as stops for people escaping enslavement.
McClellan has studied the history of the Underground Railroad in Illinois for more than 30 years, he said. He’s identified dozens of sites in northeastern Illinois where 3,000-4,500 formerly enslaved people traveled to find refuge and passage to the North, he said.
Among those sites are 20 spots in Chicago proper where people who wanted freedom traveled to and received aid, McClellan said.
The Ton Farm, run by Dutch immigrants and abolitionists Jan and Aagje Ton, helped formerly enslaved people in their journey North, McClellan said.
“There was a very active Underground Railroad here,” McClellan said. “In the 1850s, it was really run by a group of Black abolitionists, Black activists. Uniquely, at the southern edge of Chicago, there was a settlement of a lot of Dutch farmers, and several Dutch families ended up directly assisting freedom seekers who were leaving Chicago on their way to freedom in Canada.”
McClellan said Saturday’s event is important because it will celebrate and highlight the history of Ton Farm and the city’s often ignored and forgotten Southeast Side.
“The stories of freedom seekers and the Underground Railroad, along with other aspects of Black history in this country — these are stories that have either been ignored or have been deliberately pushed aside, and we’re very excited that we’ve been working with a very diverse group of community people and other folks … to kind of bring back to light,” McClellan said.
“The movement of freedom seekers and the Underground Railroad road is a very important part of American history [that] has been just overlooked for too long.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: