LIBERTYVILLE – A new exhibit at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville explores the lore of the Underground Railroad, which is believed to have strong ties to Lake County.
On display through March 19 and brought to the museum as part of Black History Month, “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” features the work of Dallas-based photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales.
In bringing the exhibit to Lake County, the Lake County Forest Preserve District has augmented it with information specific to the area. Educational programs and events relating to the exhibition and the Underground Railroad are planned through March at the museum, 1899 W. Winchester Road in Libertyville. For information, visit www.lcfpd.org/museum.
“This is such an important topic, surrounded with a lot of mystery and curiosity,” said Nan Buckardt, director of education for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which oversees the museum. “The more we can understand it, the more we understand our collective history. … It really is a beautiful exhibit, and I think it will be very evocative for people who take the time to look at it.”
Through photographs, narratives and memorabilia, the exhibit documents the sites, cities and places that freedom-seekers passed through during their journey. An estimated 100,000 slaves between 1830 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 chose to seek freedom, often traveling during the middle of the night and in constant fear of being killed or recaptured, returned and beaten.
Symbolic of their stories, Michna-Bales’ photographs are meant to be explored as a journey. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions and talk about the subject to gain a better understanding of history, Buckardt said.
“Nothing like this has been here before,” she said. “The photographer was really careful about how she had the light hit those places so that it can evoke feelings about what it might have been like for those traveling this way,” she said. “There’s not a lot of text with it, but there’s a huge amount of content. … There’s a story in the photographs.”
The photographs encompass a path of about 2,000 miles from the cotton plantations south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, north to the Canadian border.
Although sites from Illinois are not included in the photographs, symbols of the Underground Railroad’s likely presence in the Lake County area are included at the end of the exhibit. Among them are excerpts from a diary with references to runaway slaves being helped by area residents.
“Just the idea of, ‘How do we in Lake County fit into the historical events that happened?’ … It was the tip of the iceberg there,” said Jain Deepankar of Wauconda, who recently visited the exhibit and a related program at the Dunn Museum. His wife, Lindsey, surprised him with the outing, knowing his interest in the history of the Underground Railroad.
Jain Deepankar said he became more intrigued by the history after the death of George Floyd, an African American murdered during a police arrest in 2020 in Minneapolis.
“You just can’t hide from that ugliness,” he said.
Along with a better understanding of history, he said he has sought out stories of humanity amid it all, including those involving the Underground Railroad and people who risked their lives to help free others.
“That’s something to be celebrated,” Deepankar said. “That kind of stuff, it’s so neat to discover. It makes me proud to be an American. … It really seems there is a lot of undocumented aspects to this and I think it’s wonderful that the museum had this and that it’s so close to home.”
Northeastern Illinois was the strongest area of anti-slavery sentiment in the state. As early as 1838, residents of Lake County discussed the abolishment of slavery, and in 1846 they organized the Lake County Antislavery Society.
Because of the Underground Railroad’s secretive nature, Buckardt said, little visual documentation exists of sites and those who helped in the area.
“We know there was activity here,” she said. “There is lore around some buildings in Lake County, but we don’t have the documentation to prove it.”
Lake County’s most known advocate of abolition was the Rev. William B. Dodge, pastor of the Milburn Congregational Church. His roots in Salem, Massachusetts, where he worked in education and harbored freedom seekers in his home, set the stage for his leadership role in Lake County.
Along with Milburn, another Lake County area believed to be involved in the Underground Railroad has become known as the Mother Rudd House and Museum at 4690 Old Grand Ave. in Gurnee. Once a stagecoach stop, tavern, post office, town hall and candy store, the original 1844 building was restored by the village of Gurnee. The Warren Township Historical Society oversees the house and museum.
It is believed slaves were housed in the basement or barn during the Civil War era. Plaques within the barn foundation¹s garden tell the story of the Underground Railroad.
Because of the building’s past uses as an inn and stagecoach stop, people came and went at all hours, making it an inviting stop to hide, said Joe Lodesky, president of Warren Township.
“Verification is a difficult thing for that subject, of course, because it was an illegal activity,” he said. “It comes down to us as lore. The ancestors left us lore that the Mother Rudd House was a stop, but that was as far as it goes. That’s what makes it hard.”
Township volunteers regularly host tours at the Mother Rudd House and Museum. Any exploration of Underground Railroad history benefits all, Lodesky said.
“If you don’t know the past, you don’t know the future,” he said. “The past is just flesh on the bones of what goes on now, the struggles of people, the trials and tribulations.”