In Plank Road Summer, Yorkville pioneer families debate whether citizens in the free state of Wisconsin should help runaway slaves. Today it is hard to believe that such actions could be considered criminal, but in the 1840s and ’50s, aiding fugitive slaves was against the law even in Northern states. Nobody can ever know just how many unknown abolitionists risked their livelihoods and reputations by assisting runaways, but records exist of those who were caught and convicted of the crime.
How inspiring to read that Illinois governor Pat Quinn recently granted clemency to three 19th-century abolitionists. Back in 1842, Dr. Richard Eells of Quincy, Illinois, gave Charley, a runaway slave, a change of clothes and tried to transport him to a school for missionaries that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. When Charley and his conductor were caught, Dr. Eells was found guilty and fined $400. Today the Eells home serves as a museum recognized by the National Park Service, but until a few days ago, Dr. Eells was still a convicted criminal.
Two years ago, the Friends of the Dr. Richard Eells House began seeking a pardon for Eells. As Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon worked to assemble the case, the stories of two more Illinois abolitionists were uncovered. In 1843, Julius and Samuel Willard, a father and son from Jacksonville, were convicted of trying to help an escaped slave. According to Lt. Gov. Simon, “It’s important for all of us to remember heroes who spoke up and acted at great risk to themselves for what was right, even when they knew it was not what the law would support.” After reviewing the cases, Governor Quinn issued pardons for all three abolitionists, calling them “early warriors for freedom.” (For full Chicago Tribune story, click here.)
Hattie’s War and the Plank Road books celebrate the lives of ordinary people who work together to do what is right, whether by assisting fugitive slaves, aiding families devastated by disaster, or supporting veterans and their families. In this New Year, may each of us remember the unsung heroes and do our part in our communities and our world.