Nancy Beasley says she doesn’t necessarily condone civil disobedience and has never taken part in a protest demonstration, but she speaks and writes eloquently about DeKalb County’s most notable lawbreakers – abolitionists deacon David West, Dr. Horatio Page and Jesse Kellogg, among others.
Beasley recently completed a 10-year project, publishing her book “The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois,” and delivered her first speech here on it last week before a spellbound crowd of more than 100 people. After her talk, people lined up to obtain an autographed copy, and their comments were full of praise.
Seldom does history stir such feelings at local gatherings, but the subject was close to home, involving DeKalb County pioneer families and prominent clergy, farmers and elected officials who risked their reputations and even jail to help fleeing African-American slaves pass through northern Illinois to find freedom in Canada.
As Beasley explained to her audience, the story of abolitionists and their brave deeds in DeKalb County had gone unreported and unrecorded in most history books over the years.
“I thought it was an area of DeKalb County history that had not been thoroughly examined,” Beasley said, “… and found all these bits and pieces.”
She had started out with the intention of writing a history of the Sycamore Federated Church, a successor to the First Congregational Church and the Universalist Church, but found so much intriguing history in those 1840s handwritten records that this book evolved, detailing a much bigger story of what occurred in those early days in this county.
Beasley found that other churches, such as Mayfield’s Wesleyan Methodist (now Mayfield Congregational Church) and the United Presbyterian Church near Somonauk, were also centers of abolitionist activity.
I won’t reveal more details from her book, so people will need to purchase it or borrow a copy from their local library, but what she shared with her audience could be the seed for the start of a movement to recognize these neglected historical figures in our past.
How many of you were told Underground Railroad stories in local schools or Sunday school classes? How much did teachers dwell on the anti-slavery movement, and who has even heard the names West, Kellogg, Page or Dr. Ellsworth Rose, Agrippa Dow or deacon Charles Smith?
My point is, we need to honor the memory and deeds of these pioneers, and not just leave them on library shelves. In the past few years we have erected statues or are in the process of recognizing modern-day icons such as Sycamore coach Pete Johnson, DeKalb bandleader Dee Palmer and “Mr. Pumpkin” Wally Thurow, but shouldn’t our children and future generations also have physical reminders of the daring abolitionists?
Maybe it will fall on the shoulders of today’s clergy, or the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society, to come up with an appropriate memorial. David West certainly deserves more than the crumbling little headstone in Elmwood Cemetery where his name is obliterated and no cemetery records survive to detail his birth and death or those of his two wives and sister.
Let’s hope that Nancy Beasley’s efforts will inspire some of us to implant their heroics in the minds of coming generations.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL. 60115. His column appears every other Tuesday on this page.