Following the Underground Railroad

Alexander Gent

In commemoration of Black History Month (BHM), Lewis and Clark Community College once again invited students, faculty, and the local community to take part in the annual “Underground Railroad Tour” on Valentine’s day  last month. Provided with comfortable transportation via a coach-style bus, attendants traveled around the Godfrey-Alton area, visiting historical locations connected to the “Underground Railroad” while tour-guide Eric Robinson described the Riverbend community as it existed around the time of the American-Civil War.

Robinson longingly announced that this year the tour happened to coincide with the birthday of Frederick Douglas, described the evolution of Black History Month from the former “Negro History Week” and emphasized its importance before getting the tour underway.

“I shall preview material from my book , which I am working on with University of Illinois Press,” said Robinson, an avid preserver of African-American History, and long time tour-guide for this event. “It follows an escaped slave, Gertrude Barlabie of St. Louis, through Alton to Brighton.

Leaving campus, on a much warmer than average winter afternoon, the bus traveled the route that Barlabie most likely traveled along the way to freedom. Born in Kentucky, the summer of 1853, she was separated from her family, as most slaves were at the time, and she eventually made her way to New Orleans before ending up in St. Louis.

Robinson described the college which was known then as Monticello Seminary (an all girl school), and the landscape around the campus, which was mainly wide open rural country land. Susan Van Arnsfield was employed there as a teacher during this time and would eventually help Barlabie along the way in her travels.

Stopping near Alton’s City Hall to admire the view of the Mississippi River from atop of the hill on Third Street,  Robinson informed the crowd that steam boats and railways dominated the transportation industry in this area during Barlabie’s time. With the Arch and high rise buildings visible on the horizon that clear sunny day, Robinson explained it would only take about an hour to reach Alton from the St. Louis riverfront via steamboat.

The trip included stops at a few of the Lucas Pfeiffenberger designed buildings (the McPike Mansion is perhaps his most famous) such as the Koenig house and the Union Street Baptist Church. Union Street Baptist Church (ca.1908) is said to be the oldest African-American congregation west of the Alleghenies.

The tour concluded with a visit to the Lovejoy monument. Tourists were invited to exit the bus and pay their respects while hearing the story of one of Alton’s most prominent and revered African-Americans, at his grave site.

Elijah P Lovejoy was avid printer of abolitionist literature who was murdered by anti-abolitionists after a series of protests broke out into violent riots. The first of these riots resulted in the destruction and loss of his printing press.

He refused to quit, obtaining another printing press. This incited more riots which eventually led to the loss of his life.

Robinson answered questions for tourists, corroborated “rumors” about Lovejoy’s story as facts, and explained the history of the cemetery, while noting some Alton’s most prominent residents taking their final rest on those grounds.

“This event is quite an important part of Black History Month here on this campus, as the campus itself is part of that history” said Jared Hennings, program coordinator for student activities. “This is one of my favorite events because it draws significant support from the community, and those who attend comment how much they really appreciate that the college offers this tour during BHM.”

The college has hosted this event for nearly a decade and it grows in importance with each passing year yielding the loss of those who remember the facts of these stories.  As unflattering as the Lovejoy story may sound for Altonians, its preservation is nonetheless important because, as history shows, those who forget the past are sometimes doomed to repeat it.

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