WINNER, 2023 Underground Railroad Free Press Hortense Simmons Memorial Prize for the Advancement of Knowledge!
Uncovering stories of the freedom network in northeastern Illinois
Decades before the Civil War, Illinois’s status as a free state beckoned enslaved people, particularly those in Kentucky and Missouri, to cross porous river borders and travel toward new lives. While traditional histories of the Underground Railroad in Illinois start in 1839, and focus largely on the romanticized tales of white men, Larry A. McClellan reframes the story, not only introducing readers to earlier freedom seekers, but also illustrating that those who bravely aided them were Black and white, men and women. McClellan features dozens of individuals who made dangerous journeys to reach freedom as well as residents in Chicago and across northeastern Illinois who made a deliberate choice to break the law to help.
Onward to Chicago charts the evolution of the northeastern Illinois freedom network and shows how, despite its small Black community, Chicago emerged as a point of refuge. The 1848 completion of the I & M Canal and later the Chicago to Detroit train system created more opportunities for Black men, women, and children to escape slavery. From eluding authorities to confronting kidnapping bands working out of St. Louis and southern Illinois, these stories of valor are inherently personal. Through deep research into local sources, McClellan presents the engrossing, entwined journeys of freedom seekers and the activists in Chicagoland who supported them.
McClellan includes specific freedom seeker journey stories and introduces Black and white activists who provided aid in a range of communities along particular routes. This narrative highlights how significant biracial collaboration led to friendships as Black and white abolitionists worked together to provide support for freedom seekers traveling through the area and ultimately to combat slavery in the United States.
About the Author
Larry A. McClellan, emeritus professor of sociology and community studies at Governors State University, has been instrumental in adding listings to the National Park Service Network to Freedom register of the Underground Railroad. McClellan helped create GSU, was the mayor of University Park, and was a consultant for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. He is the author of The Underground Railroad South of Chicago and To the River: The Remarkable Journey of Caroline Quarlls, a Freedom Seeker on the Underground Railroad.
“Challenging the narrative that the Underground Railroad was mainly the work of white abolitionists, Larry A. McClellan’s determined research into local archives reveals detailed stories of the Black activists and freedom seekers who shared the work of combating slavery in the United States.”—Robin Kelly, Illinois congresswoman
“Onward to Chicago will take its well-deserved place alongside regional classics of the UGRR. The book elevates Chicago’s important role for self-liberators and those who aided them. McClellan has given us well-researched accounts covering the earliest days of the UGRR in Chicago to the outbreak of the Civil War. By using a range of stories, he updates understanding of escape and abolitionism through an impressive cross section of Underground Railroad activists.”—Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, author of Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance
“Larry A. McClellan makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the Underground Railroad in one of its principal hubs. He paints a full picture in this lively and engaging book that will be of interest to both experts and general readers.”—Keith Griffler, author of The Freedom Movement's Lost Legacy: Black Abolitionism Since Emancipation
“In Onward to Chicago, Larry A. McClellan captures the lives of the freedom seekers and the activists who aided them in northeastern Illinois in all of their humanity and complexity. Furthermore, he upends our usual interpretation of the Underground Railroad by showing the agency exerted by the freedom seekers and the vital roles played by Black abolitionists, Black churches, and Black communities in this struggle for liberty.”—Roy E. Finkenbine, coeditor of Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830–1865
“McClellan’s research is meticulous and thorough. This study traces the Underground Railroad enterprise in Chicago and surrounding areas, revealing the true scope of the soul-crunching, human work involved in securing freedom for enslaved people and their families.”—Jennifer Harbour, author of Organizing Freedom: Black Emancipation Activism in the Civil War Midwest