A stop on the Underground Railroad

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, January 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the Underground Railroad. 

Escape routes for slaves to free areas began in the late 1700s. By the time of the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s,  as many as 100,000 people travelled along the network. Non-slaves put their own safety at risk to help those in bondage escape. Many of their stories are unknown.  

REICHARD: We go now to Illinois where WORLD Radio Intern, Michelle Schlavin tells of one man’s fight against slavery.

AUDIO: [Sound from Highway 6]

MICHELLE SCHLAVIN, INTERN: Driving along Highway 6 into Princeton, Illinois, you can’t miss the Lovejoy Homestead. The white farmhouse is just off the road. Luscious grass and white fencing surround property. Tall trees sway in the breeze, inviting passersby to stop in and take a look. 

PETERSON: Hi. Hey, are you good? Let’s try my little doorbell. See if it works. 

Lois Peterson is a docent. She greets visitors to the Lovejoy Homestead and guides them through the house. Peterson has volunteered here for almost a decade. 

PETERSON: The people that started this, um, some of them are retired teachers…And I got involved because my sister was involved and she was involved because another teacher friend of hers was involved. We’re not all teachers don’t get me wrong.

Actually they are. Each docent is an educator. Each year about 1,000 visitors learn about this important period of Abolition history. 

The house was a stop on the underground railroad. The homestead museum preserves the history of one of it’s station masters, Owen Glendour Lovejoy. Owen came to Princeton as a minister and is known for his fiery sermons. He later entered into politics.

The seeds for Owen’s strong beliefs started in his God-fearing New England home. He was the 6th of eight children. His mother taught him using the Bible. In his twenties, Owen went to college for a year. But returned home after his father died.

PETERSON: So he went back to the farm and he was very, very restless…He was kind of lost and he hadn’t really taken Christianity to a higher level.

Owen looked up to his oldest brother, Elijah Lovejoy. An abolitionist minister and newspaper editor in a slave state. Elijah boldly published his anti-slavery beliefs, and his readers threatened him for it. Owen Bryant Lovejoy, is Owen’s great, great, grandson. He says, Elijah ignored their hostile words. 

OWEN B. LOVEJOY: He was martyred, called the first martyr to the freedom of the press…So it was in trying to protect his right to print his abolitionists views, uh, that he was murdered by a mob. 

After Elijah’s death, Owen swore he would never abandon the cause. The tragedy ignited his Christian convictions and fiery passion to end slavery. He took every opportunity he could to speak out. Along with fellow abolitionists, he once published an ad in the newspaper for the Underground Railroad. He also regularly preached his beliefs from the pulpit. With mixed results.

OWEN B. LOVEJOY: Some folks would get up and leave and his famous comment…you know, I’m going to preach this until you like it and then I’m, and then I’m going to preach it because you like it. 

Since Illinois was a free state, he and his family did not face the persecution Elijah endured. He was arrested numerous times for harboring slaves, but each time released on technicalities. Still, Owen felt he could do more. The further north slavery spread, the harder it would be to control and eventually abolish. Owen wanted to stop that expansion. 

OWEN B. LOVEJOY: He saw that it was through the legal system and through legislative action…To become part of that very process, that legislative process. And that happened to be running for Congress, in the U.S. Congress.

Owen continued condemning slavery through bold speeches in Congress. One address captured national attention after Owen announced he would help every “fugitive” that came to his door. He challenged people to spread the news of his involvement. 

Owen also worked closely with Abraham Lincoln. They introduced bills to end slavery in the nation, and stop it from entering the territories. Owen kept fighting until his death in 1864. 

AUDIO: Our most prized possession is a picture of him…

For all the good Owen Lovejoy did in his lifetime, his story was almost lost. After years of neglect, the homestead fell apart. Princeton city planners considered tearing it down to build apartments. 

PETERSON: Many citizens in Princeton took it upon themselves to organize and maintain this, how to restore the house and maintain the house. And it’s been open since 1970.

Each year, Princeton, Illinois, celebrates The Homestead Festival to honor Reverend Owen Lovejoy’s contributions to freedom. Although a prominent man in the community, he as not the only abolitionist in town. Many residents opened their homes to fleeing slaves long before Owen Lovejoy ever arrived. His story, is just one of many. 

LOVEJOY: And even though that kind of slavery isn’t the issue [anymore] there’s still many injustices, and I’m not, I’m not proposing that there’s some simple solution. I’m just saying that this idea of justice versus injustice is an everyday thing in our world, not just a 200 year old problem. So I think it’s important to remember that people have fought those kind of issues in the past. And maybe it will, uh, embolden us and encourage us to not shy away from those issues of which we are passionate.


For WORLD Radio, I’m Michelle Schlavin. Reporting from Princeton, Illinois.

(Photo/Michelle Schlavin)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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