RIVERDALE — As advocates work to designate the Calumet region as Chicago’s second National Heritage Area, Far South Side neighbors and their local partners are working to uplift the community’s rich contributions to Black history.
Attendees at Saturday’s annual Beaubien Woods Celebration paddled the Little Calumet River in a canoe, learning how nearby residents contributed to the abolition of slavery, environmental justice, military history and other aspects of the United States’ heritage along the way.
With so much history along the Little Calumet River and the greater Calumet region, advocates are making gains in their goal to establish the region as a National Heritage Area, Mario Longoni said. He’s the lead environmental social scientist at the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center.
A National Heritage Area designation would allow the Calumet region — which stretches around Lake Michigan from the South Side and south suburbs to the Indiana-Michigan border — to access millions in federal funding for historical preservation, job creation and revenue generation.
Three such areas are in Illinois, including Chicago’s Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, which was approved by Congress late last year.
“We’ve spent two decades working to get the National Park Service and the U.S. Congress to recognize this whole natural, industrial, humanly diverse and naturally diverse region as a National Heritage Area — as a key part of the nation’s story,” Longoni said.
“We’ve gotten close enough to that goal that right now we’re starting to focus more and more in making it a reality on the ground in all these different key places, and Beaubien Woods is one of those key places,” he said.
The Little Calumet River has already been established as the African American Heritage Water Trail, a designation bestowed in 2019.
Saturday’s tour of the heritage trail near Beaubien Woods was led by historical interpreters from the local conservation nonprofit Openlands and outdoors experts with the Minnesota-based nonprofit Wilderness Inquiry. Openlands was part of a coalition to establish the heritage water trail at the site.
The trail highlights Black historical sites from Beaubien Woods to south suburban Robbins — including Hazel Johnson’s work to birth the modern environmental justice movement — to the Altgeld Gardens public housing project and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“This is hallowed ground where freedom seekers once traveled,” said Ronald Gaines, owner of Chicago’s Finest Marina, 557 E. 134th Place — the only Black-owned marina in the city.
The marina is one of the stops on the heritage water trail and is located on the former Jan and Aagje Ton Farm, which was Chicago’s first nationally recognized Underground Railroad site.
Paddlers passed Gaines on the marina’s docks Saturday as they learned about the marina and the Dutch abolitionist Ton family, who hid formerly enslaved people on their farm in an effort to help the freedom seekers reach Canada.
Gaines was not previously aware of the National Heritage Area push, but he’s tentatively in support — “as long as these designations do not interfere with my growth and development, I’m willing to share what I have in ways that I can,” Gaines said.
Chicago’s Finest Marina is included as part of the African American Heritage Water Trail. Sinclair Greenwell founded a club for Black boaters on the site in the 1950s, which Gaines patronized for a couple of decades before purchasing it from Greenwell in 2005.
Gaines purchased the marina given the river’s serene views and Greenwell’s desire to keep the property under Black ownership, but it wasn’t until 2019 that Gaines learned the “in-depth” history of the Ton Farm, he said.
Since then, Gaines said “there has been a greater interest” in Far South Side historical sites like the marina and farm.
As attention on the community has increased, the marina now offers event space for weddings and family reunions. Gaines is also seeking funding to expand the business into paddleboat rentals and offer other programs that would get people engaged with the history to be found on the water trail.
“Knowing this rich history, we want to build the marina up to the point where we can share this rich history with the public as well,” Gaines said.
Saturday also marked the debut of “Prairie Boat,” a Beaubien Woods public gathering space designed with local artists. The installation is inspired by the native prairie landscapes and the African American Heritage Water Trail.
Imani Village, Trinity United Church of Christ’s “social enterprise,” will organize programs and events at Prairie Boat, Longoni said.
Visitors are also invited to use the space for their own purposes, from family picnics and recreational activities to simply taking in the Little Calumet River’s natural beauty.
Community groups like Casa Michoacán and the Chinese American Museum of Chicago have organized Day of the Dead festivals, seasonal events, invasive species cleanups and more at the five Burnham corridor spaces.
“Hopefully we’ll see some of the same here” at Prairie Boat, he said. “We can imagine having dance, [yoga] or other kinds of stuff in the spaces around this.”
Writer Jannie Toles Coleman, a Washington Heights native and ultrasound technologist at Stroger Hospital, dedicated the Prairie Boat with her poem, “When I See You.”
In the poem, Toles Coleman honors the work of enslaved ancestors and the presence of God for setting the stage for Black people to succeed in the present. It’s intended to elicit a “Sankofa moment,” she said, after the Akan people’s principle of looking to the past to move forward.
Toles Coleman has agreed to place an installation of her poem at the site among artwork by Christine Perri, Craig Klucina, Roman Villarreal and other artists, she said.
“As [visitors] read the poem and then look at the beautiful imagery created by the phenomenal artists that participated in putting that piece together, I hope they too would have a Sankofa moment — to realize you are not here on your own accord,” she said.
Toles Coleman already knew some of the history found along the Little Calumet River, but learned more about it during Saturday’s Beaubien Woods celebration, she said.
She plans to spread the word to her friends and family about Chicago’s Finest Marina, the Ton Farm and the “hidden gem” that is the Prairie Boat site, she said.
“I left with the excitement of returning, because I want to experience more,” Toles Coleman said. “I didn’t even know all of that was accessible through Beaubien Woods.”
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