The History of Joliet – Chapter 10

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“Although Illinois didn’t have slavery, state laws imposed a severe penalty upon anyone aiding a fugitive slave.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In the two decades before railroads began to span across the nation, another rail system grew quickly with freedom at the end of the line. And the underground railroad ran right through Joliet.

Its chief conductor in Joliet was Samuel CUSHING, better known as Deacon CUSHING.

“He has a history that would make a respectable appendix to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” wrote George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian.

Although Illinois didn’t have slavery, state laws imposed a severe penalty upon anyone aiding a fugitive slave. But men like CUSHING and Col. Peter STEWART of Wilmington ignored the possibility of being arrested. The two conductors on the underground railroad assisted hundreds of escaping slaves along the route to freedom.

In 1843, after complaints from slave hunters in Missouri, CUSHING and STEWART were indicted by a Will County grand jury for their deeds. The two men were arrested, jailed and then released on bond.

In a clever move by the prosecutor, he determined he wasn’t ready to go to trial. CUSHING and STEWART demanded a speedy trial. But with the prosecutor not ready, the charges against them were simply dropped.

CUSHING and STEWART went back to conducting their stations on the underground railroad. STEWART would deliver a slave to CUSHING in the night. CUSHING would hide the slave through the daylight and then, the following night, take the individual to the next station in Crown Point, Ind. This process was repeated hundreds of times through the 1840s and 1850s.

One of the best stories preserved in local history to illustrate Joliet’s feelings about slavery is the tale of Henry BELT. He was an escaped slave who showed up in the city during the late 1830s.

Henry claimed to be a free man when he opened a barbershop on Exchange Street. He made a lot of friends. But one day, two slave hunters from Missouri saw Henry at the barbershop and figured he was worth some $2,000 on the slave block in St. Louis.

While one waited in Joliet, the other slave hunter got some papers from Missouri matching Henry’s description. They had the barber arrested and taken before a justice of peace, who gave them custody.

But Henry’s friends here protested, and the matter was taken to the court. It was set for trial in the old jail facility. The courtroom filled up that day with Henry’s white friends.

The slave hunters showed their papers. The judge, who wasn’t an abolitionist, gave a long legal opinion, which revealed that he was going to side with the slave hunters. It was apparent to the crowd what was going to happen.

“They already began to count their chickens, and they turned around to take possession of the prize, when lo, like the Irishman’s flea, he was not there,” August MAUE wrote in his history book.

As MAUE explained, while everyone was listening to the judge, Henry’s friends, including Sheriff H.D. RISLEY, had quietly moved forward in the crowd and sneaked Henry out of the courtroom. Although many in that crowded courtroom had watched what happened, no one warned the slave hunters or the judge.

“Great was the excitement when the fact was known,” MAUE wrote. “The kidnappers were raving. They found great difficulty in getting out of the courthouse — everybody seemed to be in their way.”

The slave hunters spent the rest of that day searching through the homes of known abolitionists, several who demanded search warrants.

“All this delay was favorable to the escape of Henry,” MAUE wrote. “Well, all the search was vain. Henry was nowhere to be found. After hanging around town for a few days, the kidnappers gave up the job, believing that he had escaped by that mysterious means, the underground railroad.”

MAUE said abolitionists really had nothing to do with Henry’s escape. The plan was simply hatched by the sheriff and a group of Joliet men who saw a wrong happening and quickly decided to make it right.

Col. STEWART, who had made a fortune as a contractor digging the Illinois & Michigan Canal, was one of the best-known conductors of the underground railroad. He hated slavery.

“He was an abolitionist of the most ultra kind,” one local history book said.

STEWART even gave himself a title. He called himself the president of the underground railroad.

Published June 2, 2001