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Shining a light on DeKalb County's Underground Railroad sites

Historical society marks three stations from Sycamore to Somonauk

A history of abolitionism in DeKalb County was remembered Saturday with the erection of historical markers at sites that once served as stations along the Underground Railroad. 

The DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society commemorated three stations, or places where runaway slaves were housed while en route to Canada, in a three-part ceremony that took dozens of onlookers from Sycamore to Somonauk.
Although three sites of significance to the Underground Railroad were formally recognized, landmarks committee chair Barry Schrader said there are many more because of the DeKalb County residents’ willingness to break the law and aid runaway slaves.

“It’s nice to see it finally being completed,” Sandy Lyon, DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society
president, said about the two-year project started by Schrader and local
historian Steve Bigolin. “It’s been a long journey.” 

One of the markers stands in front of a 19th century white farmhouse with black shutters along Old State Road. The house appears almost exactly how Deacon David West left it. 

West was one of many of what author Nancy Beasley called “conductors” along the Underground Railroad in DeKalb County.

From 1843 to 1859, he housed and transported hundreds of runaway slaves, most of whom had traveled from Southern states along the Mississippi River and then through Quincy, Ill., seeking freedom in Canada, where slavery had been outlawed in 1833, Beasley wrote in her book, “The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois.”

Laws prohibiting citizens of Northern states from aiding runaway slaves, including the Compromise of 1850 that made the action a federal offense, prompted conductors to act carefully. West would house runaway slaves for a few days at most, hiding them in one of many secret rooms he built on his property if curious neighbors or bounty hunters approached, and transport his guests in the middle of the night to the next station in St. Charles, where another conductor would house and transport them to the coast of Lake Michigan – the most direct route to Canada, Beasley wrote.

West’s great-great-grandson, Harlen Persinger, attended the weekend ceremonies, which also took place at Mayfield Congregational Church in Sycamore and the Somonauk United Presbyterian Church. Recognition from the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society was another chapter in a 40-year-long search to find out more about his ancestors, Persinger said.

He recounted a story about West in which he was pursued by a sheriff who was after two runaway slaves with a $10,000 bounty.

In the story, the sheriff was told that West could smell danger from a mile away and could shoot that far if he had to.

“The sheriff turned back thinking more of his own head than of the reward,” Persinger said. “I only wish that David West could be here today. I have no idea what that man would say or how he would feel, but I’m sure he would have a lot of pride.”

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