Standing before the Little Calumet River on Chicago's South Side, a neighbourhood teeming with black life, art and culture, a dose of weightiness overwhelms the body. Black people are intrinsically linked to the water, born into this earthly plane with a deeply spiritual reverence for her mystic power. She's the Oshun: the river goddess draped in her yellow Yoruban garb, creating the very existence of humankind with her sweet and fertile waters. She's the watchful mother of the diaspora, comforting the innumerable souls who chose freedom in her arms by jumping overboard from ships to avoid the unknowns of the transatlantic slave trade. She's the glistening light of the night, reflecting heaven's constellations to guide freedom seekers north on the Underground Railroad.
Here, standing on the shore of the placid waterway behind a housing project named Altgeld Gardens, there's a piece of this lineage wrapped in the Little Calumet River.
This somewhat overlooked body of water is one of the reasons Chicago exists. Few people realise that Lake Michigan is connected to the Mississippi River by a series of waterways, including the Little Calumet River. Measuring 109 miles and passing through several South Side Chicago neighbourhoods, the Little Calumet connected the East, West and South in ways that allowed for the flow of information, goods and people in the 1800s, spurring the city's development. And, unknown even to most Chicagoans, it also helped funnel hundreds of black people north to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad.
Now, a new initiative from the Chicago-based nature conservancy Openlands called the African American Heritage Water Trail is hoping to highlight the river's little-known past and its role in helping to shape 180 years of African American history.
On a hot August morning, Tiffany Watkins, her two daughters and about a dozen others buckled into lifejackets, lowered themselves into canoes and set off on the trail from the Beaubien Woods Boat Ramp. After paddling west along the Little Calumet for 15 minutes, everyone pulled over to gather around their first stop at Chicago's Finest Marina. There, they listened to historian Larry McClellan explain part of the river's history as a gateway for black freedom seekers prior to the Civil War.
"We are sitting right at the location of the Ton farm," McClellan said, explaining that the farm's owners, Jan and Aagje Ton, were two Dutch-born abolitionists who secretly housed freedom seekers in their home in the 1850s. "The National Park Service has now recognised this as a site of national significance for the Underground Railroad."