There are three central arguments of Traces of Western Illinois’ Underground Railroad. The first argument refutes a common perception that the region suffers from historical obscurity. In the early 1970s, for example, a Western Illinois University student named Neil Gamm declared, as a spoof, that the region was seceding in order to declare war on the United States and quickly surrender. Gamm’s reasoning was that Western Illinois was more likely to obtain American aid as the independent republic of “Forgottonia” than it had or would as an obscure part of the Midwest. In a more recent reminder of this obscurity, a March 2020 Women’s History Month event on a local college campus screened the 2019 film “Harriet,” about Harriet Tubman. Following the film a professor (of English) led a discussion in which she took students’ questions about Tubman and the history and mythologies of the underground railroad. But no student question or faculty facilitator comment alluded to the underground railroad of Western Illinois. So this project’s argument about the details of the region’s underground railroad shows its connection as local and regional history to the national or even epic story of American “freedom.” The project emphasizes that the region’s public history is worth documenting, narrating, and visiting. A consequence of this emphasis is that the project will present items and develop exhibits connected only to the Western Illinois region, rather than to the State of Illinois or larger national or hemispheric settings.
The second argument of the project is that while the national story of the underground railroad provides context, the stories of the underground railroad in the region are complicated and sometimes do not fit easily within the national “freedom” narrative. To take two examples, Google offers a “Routes of the Underground Railroad” map. The map shows multiple, prominent routes that fugitives took to flee slavery. Sources for the routes indicated are not shown; inexplicably, the map includes among the historical routes the routes of several federal highways. Likewise, a PBS American Experience map shows two central south-to-north routes, one originating in Louisiana, the other in Georgia, of which presumably most fugitives eventually made use. The accompanying narrative emphasizes that not all fugitive slaves fled north, and most slaves who fled bondage did not achieve freedom. Yet it implies that if slaves could cross the Mason-Dixon line their freedom was relatively secure: “In the North, Hicksite Quakers and other abolitionists provided some of the most organized support for the Underground Railroad. Particularly in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, a night’s lodging, a place to hide from slave catchers, a meal, and covert transportation by wagon, boat or horseback proved welcome to slaves fleeing the South.”
Contrary to this, perhaps inadvertent, generalization, this project will argue that fugitive slaves faced stiff opposition in Western Illinois, despite the state’s ban on slavery and location in the North. By presenting evidence like excerpts from the Illinois “black codes,” and evidence of the auctioning of suspected fugitives to bidders for their bound service, the project reminds users of reasons why the “railroad” needed to be “underground,” even in the Land of Lincoln. An implication of this argument is that myths about the underground railroad’s institutions – quilts, songs, white conductors, and especially broad community support – often are fictional. This focus of the project reflects a choice to challenge users not merely to learn about the region’s heroes of fugitive slaves and their benefactors but also to learn how the region not only failed to oppose slavery but violated the civil rights of African Americans nearby.
The third argument of the project is that there is hardly an official or even exhaustive scholarly history of the Western Illinois Underground Railroad. It is, instead open to community contributions. The project thus intends to solicit feedback from users, not only about the project’s current content but to provide additional textual or even visual materials. Part of the popular interest in the underground railroad stems, in fact, from its local community or genealogical stories. The project seeks not to verify those stories in order to declare them true or false, but to document them as part of the region’s important folk history.
Hopefully there will be several ways to document the effectiveness of the project, at this point all in terms of quantifiable data. Its existence will be reported to regional public history sites and other online, underground railroad projects around the nation, which maintain websites, with a request that they include a link to it. If at least three websites agree to link to this project, it will indicate a measure of success. Similar publicity will be sent to regional media with an invitation to report on its launch, content, and purposes. Two newspaper stories within the project’s first six months will indicate a measure of success. The project’s developer will use Twitter to report the launch as well, and tweet periodically when new items are added to the project. Twenty Twitter followers of these WIURR tweets will indicate a measure of success. Finally, the development and operability of a user feedback function of the project within six months of this post will be considered a measure of success, regardless of any user feedback provided during that time.