In the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project's latest trail proposal, Quinn Chapel AME and Olivet Baptist Church on the city's South Side would be highlighted.

BRONZEVILLE — A new effort from Underground Railroad preservationists would recognize a Chicago-to-Detroit Underground Railroad route that began in Near South Side neighborhoods.

The Little Calumet River Underground Project hosted a community meeting last month at the Chicago Public Library’s King Branch to discuss its goal to get the Chicago-to-Detroit route recognized by the National Park Service.

Bronzeville community members heard how the trail would “commemorate, interpret and preserve” the history of the Underground Railroad in Chicago.

The Chicago-to-Detroit Freedom Trail includes two routes that enslaved people traveled on their journeys to freedom, heading from Chicago to Detroit and then Canada, according to the initial concept paper for the trail.

The main route of the Chicago-to-Detroit Freedom Trail would feature two historic Black churches, Quinn Chapel AME in Bronzeville and Olivet Baptist Church on the Near South Side, both of which were important stops on the Underground Railroad in Chicago. 

“It was a route that folks took on the journey from here to Detroit and then ultimately across the river into Canada,” said Tom Shepherd, a project volunteer. “So what we’re hoping to do and plan to establish is a National Trail. There are such [trails] around the country that are established and recognized by the National Park Service.”

The trail would be the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project’s way to establish a major heritage tourism project through the Chicago-to-Detroit Freedom Trail, building on the group’s work to get Chicago’s first Underground Railroad site officially recognized by the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom project in 2019.

The Jan and Aagje Ton Farm at Chicago’s Finest Marina, 557 E. 134th Place, was the city’s first nationally recognized underground railroad site. Credit: Provided

Shepherd said the project team hopes the trail, if established, would include brochures about exploring the trail, walking and bike tours, and historical markers at officially recognized sites where those escaping to freedom via the trail would have stopped during their journey.

Many freedom seekers who traveled the trail came up though the Illinois River Valley, continuing northeast to Chicago around the bottom of Lake Michigan and on to other parts of the route in northwest Indiana, according to the plan’s concept paper. 

Freedom seekers continued traveling through southern Michigan to Detroit and eventually, Canada where they had a greater chance at freedom. Between 3,000 and 4,500 people traveled two Chicago-based routes before the Civil War, according to the concept paper.

In Chicago, the trail begins at the churches and continue south on Michigan Avenue through Bronzeville, where it could connect with walking trails and tours, the concept paper explains.

Stops in South Side neighborhoods such as Washington Heights, Morgan Park, Roseland and Pullman, along with historically relevant portions of the trail Downtown, could be featured in tours, according to the plan. 

This year, the project team will spend its time identifying important sites along the trail with an intern from Purdue University, an effort that’s in its early stages, Shepherd said.

Once all the trail’s sites have been identified and explored, the team will work to “connect the dots,” look for funding sources and have the trail officially recognized by the National Park Service, which has the resources to recognize the route as an official heritage trail, he said.

So far, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for the effort from community members, Shepherd said. 

“We’re finding a lot of interest, especially in the downtown Chicago area, to identify abolitionists that were both Black and white that worked on helping the freedom seekers, and in most cases, sending them out from Chicago to where they were actually free and safe once they reached Canada.”

People interested in volunteering with the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Trail Project, led by historian and retired professor Larry McClellan, and assisting with the new effort can reach out to the group online.

Shepherd believes it’s important that this part of Chicago’s history is officially recognized so that more people will learn about it and from it, he said.

“It’s important because this is a component of American history, U.S. history and Black history, in our country that has had minimal coverage … These things were all kept under wraps for many years and now that Juneteenth has been recognized … more people are becoming aware that there was an Underground Railroad and that there was all of this movement of peoples during the 1800s,” Shepherd said. 

“It’s just that it’s something that we find both fascinating and vital to the story of the United States and Black history,” he said.

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