Wheaton College and the Underground Railroad: The truths and myths

  • In Blanchard Hall, Timothy Larsen, Wheaton College's professor of Christian thought, recalls the school's abolitionist past alongside an obelisk memorial to anti-slavery activist James Burr.

      In Blanchard Hall, Timothy Larsen, Wheaton College's professor of Christian thought, recalls the school's abolitionist past alongside an obelisk memorial to anti-slavery activist James Burr. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The Wheaton College archives

      The Wheaton College archives Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/30/2019 4:53 PM

An 8-foot-tall grave marker is hardly out of place in the entrance of Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall, the limestone landmark that rises above campus like a hilltop castle.

Proud of its abolitionist history, the college relocated the obelisk to Blanchard five years ago from the final resting place of James Burr, an anti-slavery activist buried on campus after his death in 1859.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Historian David Maas wonders if that monument once stood as a reassuring symbol of refuge to help guide runaway slaves.

But that's a theory -- really his only fanciful view of the Underground Railroad.

Now retired, the Wheaton College history professor has written essays and given lectures debunking the mythology around the Underground Railroad. He also made a discovery about Blanchard Hall's past.

While doing research for a book about 10 years ago, Maas stumbled upon evidence supporting long-held suspicions that Blanchard was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Until then, the college had no written record of fugitive slaves passing through Wheaton. Maas found it in a 120-year-old manuscript (more on that later).

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"It was like the last thing I expected to see," he said.

Secret passage

Like other contemporary scholars, Maas has disputed the work of Ohio State University professor Wilbur Siebert, whose 1898 book influenced the traditional understanding of the Underground Railroad as a vast, organized network of safe houses run mostly by white conductors.

"For most rural areas in the U.S. and Illinois, runaway black slaves could only hope to locate rare, isolated, hospitable good Samaritans," Maas wrote in one of his essays. "It is unfortunate that railroad terminology was ever applied to these sympathetic safe houses. It conjures up a false image of permanent 'stops,' operated by station masters who would guide runaways to safe haven in Canada. Nothing is further from the truth."

More problematic than the terminology, Siebert exaggerated the role of sympathetic whites, historians say.

"Only recently have African-Americans been restored to their rightful place at the center of the story" of the Underground Railroad, Maas wrote.

Fugitive slaves made the trek through the South without much help from whites, Maas notes. He gives one example of what was the exception: Burr, a white abolitionist, was sentenced to 12 years in prison after he went into the slave state of Missouri to aid runaways.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 set six-month prison sentences and up to $1,000 fines for any white person caught helping slaves who risked being recaptured or killed.

The National Park Service's Network to Freedom recognizes Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
  The National Park Service's Network to Freedom recognizes Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall as a stop on the Underground Railroad. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer
'An abolition school'

According to campus lore, escaping slaves supposedly hid in a tunnel in Blanchard, at that time the only building on campus.

But Maas said the original building was constructed on a cement slab. The tunnel that alumni have mistaken for an Underground Railroad hideout was actually a tunnel dug in the 1920s to house heating pipes.

A former student's account suggests fleeing slaves stayed elsewhere in Blanchard.

In 2013, the National Park Service recognized the campus icon as an Underground Railroad site after Maas found documented evidence in an unlikely place: an 1889 history of the 39th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

Maas was reading regimental histories for his book about Wheaton students -- nearly 300 -- who fought in the Civil War. And he came across a passage written by Ezra Cook, a Wheaton alum who became a printer in Chicago and married one of the daughters of the college's first president, Jonathan Blanchard.

Cook referred to his alma mater as "an Abolition school in an Abolition town."

He recalled: "So strong was public sentiment that runaway slaves were perfectly safe in the College building, even when no attempt was made to conceal their presence, which was well known to the United States Marshal stationed there. With hundreds of others, I have seen and talked with such fugitives in the college chapel. Of course they soon took a night train well-guarded to the next station on the U.G.R.R."

Where was the chapel Cook remembered?

"In 1855, the (college) trustees ordered the installation on the first floor of a wood partition with two sliding doors to separate the Juvenile Department from the college chapel," Maas wrote in his essay. "This would mean the chapel was located in the south end of the first floor of Blanchard Hall."

Maas remains almost certain that Wheaton aided fugitive slaves en route to Chicago -- with some caveats.

Jonathan Blanchard, the first president of Wheaton College, was an outspoken abolitionist.
Jonathan Blanchard, the first president of Wheaton College, was an outspoken abolitionist. - Courtesy of Wheaton College

In their autobiographies, both Jonathan Blanchard, an outspoken abolitionist, and his son, Charles, who succeeded his father at the helm of the school, didn't identify Wheaton as a stop.

"You'd think that they would have made a comment. Blanchard mentions his home in Cincinnati, Ohio, being a stop on the Underground Railroad, but he doesn't mention Wheaton College," Maas said in an interview.

Cook's wife, Maria Blanchard, once described the Underground Railroad as "above ground" in Wheaton, but historians have no other record to corroborate Cook's account.

'A man of oak and iron'

So why is Blanchard Hall a fitting venue to display Burr's obelisk and honor Wheaton's abolitionist past?

The building's namesake is another mighty figure: Jonathan Blanchard was a fellow abolitionist once described as a "man of oak and iron."

"I always thought of him as a stern, rigid old man, but it turns out he was once a stern, rigid young man," said Timothy Larsen, the college's professor of Christian thought. "He was quite an interesting young man who was willing to place life and his body on the line."

Jonathan Blanchard's journal is part of the Wheaton College archives.
  Jonathan Blanchard's journal is part of the Wheaton College archives. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Born in Vermont, Blanchard as a young man wanted to be a minister. He took a year off from his studies at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts to become a full-time, anti-slavery activist.

"There were all kinds of churches, denominations that forbade their ministers from being abolitionists and from ordaining anybody who was an abolitionist," Larsen said. "So when he says, 'I'm going to take a year off and become this abolitionist activist,' the president of the seminary says, 'You'll be completely unemployable as a minister. You'll never work again.' And that was not an idle threat."

While an abolitionist lecturer in Pennsylvania, Blanchard faced a violent reaction from people who threw rocks at him, Larsen and Maas said.

Instead of returning to Andover, Blanchard went to Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio, a more clearly radical abolitionist school. One of his teachers was Calvin Stowe, whose wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In 1845, Blanchard became the second president of Knox College in Galesburg, where he earned a reputation as a prolific fundraiser.

"Galesburg was called an 'abolitionist hole' by critics because it was so committed to or had such a reputation for its anti-slavery work," historian Glennette Tilley Turner said in a recent city of Wheaton video on the Underground Railroad.

Still, it was primarily a Presbyterian school, and Blanchard, a Congregationalist, was forced out.

The Wheaton College archives contain a letter by former college President Jonathan Blanchard, a staunch abolitionist.
  The Wheaton College archives contain a letter by former college President Jonathan Blanchard, a staunch abolitionist. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

In 1859, Blanchard took the helm of what was then the Illinois Institute, a school in Wheaton run by Wesleyan Methodists and struggling with financial issues. John Cross was the institute's first president, and "he was very active in the Underground Railroad, not only in Illinois but in Michigan and to some extent in Indiana," Tilley Turner said.

"They want somebody who's anti-slavery, and so part of the mutual agreement is, 'We're going to build this abolitionist school,'" Larsen said of Blanchard.

He suspects Blanchard took the job because he knew he could make his mark here and live out his principles.

"He commits to Wheaton being a school that takes African American students in from the very beginning," Larsen said. " ... He commits to women being part of the student body from the very beginning."

At the start of his tenure, the Illinois Institute was renamed Wheaton College in honor of one of the city's patriarchs: Warren Wheaton, a businessman who donated land to the school.

Edward Breathitte Sellers, one of the first black college graduates in Illinois, earned his degree from Wheaton College in 1866.
Edward Breathitte Sellers, one of the first black college graduates in Illinois, earned his degree from Wheaton College in 1866. - Wheaton College

In 1866, Edward Breathitte Sellers, one of the first black college graduates in Illinois, earned his degree from Wheaton.

"We've also tried to wrestle with that history," Larsen said. " ... And so when you have a very strong segregationist mentality in the early 20th century, Wheaton constricted."

Blanchard confronted the injustice of slavery with a strong sense of righteousness, an early model of the school's motto, "For Christ and His Kingdom," Larsen said.

"He's a long president and the next president is his son, so the Blanchard family -- to this day, there are still Blanchards who are patrons of the college -- really gave Wheaton College its DNA," he said.

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