When Illinois Senator Napoleon Harris (District 15) was a boy, he was playing near the Little Calumet River, a few blocks from his home on 133rd Street, throwing rocks into the river and running around, noticing broken boats.

He had no idea he was on a site that was once a safe haven for enslaved people who fled north from the 1830s to the Civil War, he said at a ceremony of blessing the mark of the former subway site at Chicago’s Finest Marina, 577 E 134th place.

“It’s bittersweet because I’ve seen what this place was,” said Harris. “And now, seeing it today, I rejoice in my heart to see what Mr. Gaines has done with this property. And to see historical value that I didn’t know existed as a child. “

Ronald Gaines, a retired Chicago Police Sergeant, owns Chicago’s Finest Marina. The former Ton farm was where freedom seekers sought refuge. The Ton family was one of several Dutch families to settle in the area between 1847-1849.

People fleeing from the south used the so-called Riverdale Crossing, now the Indiana Avenue Bridge west of the marina, then sought refuge and rest with Dutch settlers who assisted them before going north to Chicago or Detroit, and eventually Canada.

About four years ago, Larry McClellan, Professor Emeritus at Governors State University, called Gaines to tell him about the history of the property, Gaines told a crowd of about 100 people on Saturday afternoon.

McClellan was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and studied at the University of Ghana in West Africa. He made his life studying and teaching African American history, eager to explore how black and white people understand each other and their history, he said.

“Black history matters,” said McClellan. “Because it enriches our entire history.”

Since making this call to Gaines, McClellan has worked with local leaders and community residents to illuminate the history of the marina on Chicago’s Far South Side, creating the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project.

In 2019, Jan and Agje Ton’s farm became part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom program, which recognizes subway locations across the country.

On Saturday, a plaque of the Illinois State Historical Society was unveiled.

Representatives of local and state government, descendants of the Ton family, local residents and other sympathizers joined the project during Saturday’s celebration.

Governor Juliana Stratton said the underground railroad symbolizes not only historic acts of courage, but also the collective power of what can be achieved when people work together to face challenges.

“We stand here proud, humble and hopeful that we are the wildest dreams of our ancestors,” said Stratton. “You see, we’re looking to the past to help shape our future.”

Stratton had visited the place two years ago while learning about the Black story. She said her journey took her to part of the Illinois Underground Railroad, deepening her understanding of the discomfort and pain people face on their way to freedom.

“The job of liberating others is never easy, but it’s always worth it,” said Stratton. “Here at Ton Farm, I have been reminded that wherever there is slavery and slavery, courageous escape attempts are made, often assisted by ordinary people like all of us here today.”

She said the new historical marker would give people the opportunity to participate and understand the struggle of the past, but also understand the hope this place represents.

US representative Robin Kelly, whose district the site is based in, said the Underground Railroad is providing important lessons for present and future generations. She said she hopes that people who learn about and visit this site will be encouraged and inspired.

“In addition to their educational and cultural value, these places serve as a reminder of our nation’s hateful history and why we can never go back to those roads,” Kelly said. “These sites serve as inspiration to always do what’s right, no matter what the risks are.”

After the unveiling, people had a light meal and toured the marina; the children ran while the adults talked. The woman led a yoga group, while others walked around the room where the art exhibit titled “The Witness” by the artists Mama Edie Armstrong and Nathan Miller was on display.

There were portraits of black youths scattered throughout the room; on the back of each portrait there was the poem “I am from …” written by the youth from the portrait. Youth took part in the Witnesses summer program at the Altgeld Library.

“These works are a continuation of the story of their ancestors about the liberation of black people,” reads the description of the art exhibition.

Kelly Flowers, deputy headmaster of WEB Du Bois Primary School, took her 4-year-old granddaughter to the event. She said she was excited to learn about the history of the place within walking distance of the school. Flowers said she plans to share what she has learned with social science teachers so that they can incorporate it into their curriculum. She also plans to share what she has learned with her network of educators at other South Side schools.

“You just know you live in a historic area, how deep is that?” Flowers said. “So that they can be proud of where they are, they get information about where they are and who they are, where they come from. And that it is tangible, it is attainable. So it was huge for me. “

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Nearby residents who visited the celebration, and some who stopped for what they thought were Marina Days, where the marina is open to the public and offers food and family activities, said they were surprised to learn about its history.

“All these years, I never knew,” said Danasha Thomas, who went to the marina with her daughter and stepchildren after the ceremony. Thomas said it was important for people to know their story and he was excited to learn about the new tag before entering the marina.

Gaines, the owner of the marina, plans to continue working with McClellan and members of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project to open the marina to the public and offer tours and other ways to further educate people about its historical significance.

“If we don’t find out about our past, it will distract us from our future,” said Gaines. “And I think that while slavery was something we never focus on in the North, it is kind of gratifying to know that we here had an active part in the survival of freedom-seekers.”

McClellan said it was “deeply gratifying” that so many people attend the festivities, and he affirms what he has always known – that black history is important. Lots of people told him, “I didn’t know that happened here,” he said, adding that he was glad he could share this story with people.

History is not far off, said McClellan. “History is here in our backyards. That is, good God, we are standing right where the people who were fleeing for their lives were standing in the right place, in the same place. “

Editor’s Note: The name of a retired Governors State University professor was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It should be Larry McClellan.

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