Archives and Special Collections
African-American History in Lake Forest
Walking Tours for Lake Forest College Students
Lake Forest was laid out in 1857 and settled immediately after, before the Civil War (1861-1865). The community has a rich heritage, dating from its earliest days, of African-American participation, contributions, and leadership in local business, church, and educational life. Race relations here, too, have a proud heritage — rooted both in ante bellum anti-slavery activity by leading founders and later in warm close relationships among founding families, African-American and European-American. These early informal links across class lines derived in part from the New-England-village origins of many of the founders. But most exemplary here, perhaps, among the Eurpean-Americans was Scottish-born Sylvester Lind — an important Underground Railroad figure, a key founder of Lake Forest College, and Lake Forest’s longest-serving mayor, into the 1880s. These warm ties between the races were favorably contrasted to the stratified English class system in College trustee (and spouse of Rose Farwell ‘90) Hobart Chatfield-Taylor’s 1894 novel, An American Peeress, which contains fictional sketches both of Lind and of Lake Forest’s most legendary early African-American, Samuel Dent.
The TOUR: Starting from Deerpath Hall, go west to
1. Durand Institute, the site of the first location of Lake Forest Academy (1859-1879). The town was founded in 1857 to launch an educational organization, a university for Presbyterians whose support of anti-slavery stopped short of radicals’ calls for revolutionary action. Nearby Presbyterian colleges (Knox, Beloit) were controlled by relative radicals in the mid-1850s. Classes for a boys’ prep school opened in this wood-frame structure, facing Deerpath, in early 1859. The first college level course work began here, at Lind University (see #3 below) in 1860 61 and continued until the program disbanded in 1863, with many of the students joining the Union army.
Already by about 1860, according to Edward Arpee in his 1963 Lake Forest, Illinois: History and Reminiscences, 1861-1961 (p. 50), an African-American named “‘Joe’” was “the village handyman, always whistling, always cheerful.” He “was a popular figure, a helpful companion to the boys.” Joe is the first African-American mentioned by name in Arpee’s town history.
Alexander (“Guv”) Marshall (1821-1913), served as the Academy custodian for thirty years, from his arrival “soon after the Civil War.” Marshall and his wife, Elsie, had nine children and one, George, was residing with them at the time of the 1910 census. Marshall played a crucial role when the wood-frame Academy building, a boarding school, burned in 1879. In Arpee’s words (who was an Academy faculty member earlier in this century, pp. 103-4), Marshall “ran to ring the Academy bell and stayed at his post for some time, keeping his head out of the window for fresh air.” Though the building was destroyed, no lives were lost. Marshall and his wife are buried in Lake Forest Cemetery, section B just to the left of the entrance from Lake Road (see Lake Forest Cemetery; Lake Forest, Illinois (Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Historical Society, 1994, p. 62).
First Presbyterian Church
2. Continue west to in front of the First Presbyterian Church, on Deerpath, built in 1887 and on the site of the first wood-frame church, built in 1862. The town, the church and Lind University (later Lake Forest College) were started from the same effort, with the key leadership coming from Chicago’s moderate-on-anti-slavery Second Presbyterian Church. This church’s pastor was the Rev. Robert W. Patterson (1814 1894), who in 1841 graduated from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. Lane was an early center of western Presbyterian orthodoxy headed by Rev. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mrs. Stowe, whose husband was a faculty member at Lane when Patterson was there, wrote the best selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, about the evils of slavery, and generated much sympathy for the plight of African-Americans. Patterson became the first President of Lake Forest University, 1875-78 — when co-educational, continuous college-level work was begun in 1876.
Patterson knew Abraham Lincoln well, also, who often attended the Patterson’s Second Church when in Chicago — according to a biographical outline by son Raymond Patterson after Rev. Patterson’s 1894 death (College Archives). After Lincoln was elected president in 1860 the two towering men stood heel to heel at a Chicago party to determine who was taller (Lincoln, it turned out; from “Out of the Past” by Mrs. William Blair in Chicago Yesterdays; Chicago, 1919; p. 86). When Lake Forest outgrew the 1862 wood-frame church under pastor James McClure (president of the College, 1897-1901), the present church was built from the “spotted” stones of the Pre-Chicago-Fire (1871) Second Church. Patterson preached the June, 1887 dedication sermon here (see article by Russell Kohr in the Church’s 125th anniv. booklet, 1986; the building is pictured as #1 in A Preservation Foundation Guide to National Register Properties: Lake Forest, Illinois, 1991 and rev. 1994). Thus, Lincoln had worshiped in the Chicago church surrounded by these same stones.
Sylvester Lind House
3. Continue west on Deerpath to the driveway to 550 East Deerpath (just past the Church’s parking lot), the site of the 1859 Sylvester Lind House, the 1906 replacement of which is pictured as #21 in the Preservation Foundation Guide. Presbyterian pastor (1881-1905) James G.K. McClure’s manuscript “The Originals,” based on his first-hand knowledge, says this house (and apparently the carriage house visible at the north end of the drive, now on Church land) was a stop on the Underground Railroad. According to a May 1890 Stentor article on “The Under-ground Railway…” by William E. Danforth, class of 1891, Lake Forest founder Sylvester Lind (1808-1892) was a key figure in Chicago’s underground railroad, the massive if covert civil disobedience effort of the years prior to the Civil War, moving escaped slaves north to Canada in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lind was in the lumber business, sending self-freed slaves up the lakes on ships going to his timber stands on Green Bay. The enterprising Danforth - who also interviewed Samuel Dent (see below, #8) and visiting celebrities for the Stentor (explorers George Kennan and Sir Henry Stanley) — must have based his article at least in part on a first-hand account by octogenarian Lind.
The escape procedure through the lakes was elaborate, to protect both the fugitives and the ships. To keep the ships’ captains out of trouble the escaped slaves were sneaked on board at Lind’s lumber yard in Chicago when the ship’s captain would be looking another way, for “deniability” so his ship wouldn’t be confiscated under the law. Then at an island refueling station at Death’s Door in Wisconsin’s Door County, again when the captain wasn’t looking, the escaped slaves would jump ashore. When a ship heading down the lakes to Detroit stopped at the refueling station the fugitives would sneak abroad, the captain looking the other way. Once in the narrow St. Clair River north of Detroit, the ship would move in close to the Ontario shore so the African-Americans could leave the ship for freedom, always with the captain’s eyes busily elsewhere. According to Danforth’s article, Lind or other “conductor” travellers cued the fugitives when, literally, “the coast was clear.”
Lind, a successful ante bellum entrepreneur, pledged $100,000 to the Presbyterian university and it briefly was named for him (see #1 above). Reverses following the 1857 economic depression, though, prevented him from meeting his commitment and the name was changed to Lake Forest University in 1865. According to Arpee (p. 55 and passim.), Lind made and lost several fortunes in the turbulent days of early Chicago, in real estate, lumber, and insurance. He was a charter member of the Lake Forest Association which launched the College, town, and church. He later served as mayor of Lake Forest in 1868-70, 1874-77, 1878-79, and 1881-84 — longer than any other single individual. His ante bellum commitment to African-Americans and long leadership in town reflected the strength and continuity of early race relations here. He is buried in Section A of the cemetery. The second owners of 550 East Deerpath, builders of the 1905 house later remodeled and expanded) were Mr. and Mrs. Charles D. Norton. Mrs. Norton (Katherine McKim Garrison Norton) was the grand daughter of the two leading east-coast radical Abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and James Miller McKim. Garrison was known as “The Liberator” and one commentator of the day characterized McKim as an Abolitionist “‘scarcely second to Garrison’” (Dictionary of American Biography, VI, 103). McKim and his wife accompanied Mrs. John Brown to Harper’s Ferry to take possession of Brown’s body after his abortive, but watershed raid there in October of 1859 and his subsequent trial and execution by hanging.
4. Proceed west to the corner of Deerpath and Washington and enter Triangle Park, continue to the middle below the tall evergreens and (conditions permitting) leave the path for the higher wooded glade — the site of the former Lake Forest Hotel, or old Hotel, built in 1857 and now demolished. This was the site of the first Academy classes in 1858 before the Academy building opened the next year. Here also the Presbyterian church organized in 1859.
Along Deerpath from the depot and past Triangle Park and the Hotel to the lake bluff travelled large parties of hundreds from Chicago and Lake County for a picnic on June 25, 1859. One of the noted speakers that day, according to Arpee (pp. 47-48, 66) was C. Volney Dyer, the director of Chicago’s Underground Railroad, reflecting the concerns of the community which supported early Lake Forest.
Curvilinear Street Plan
5. From this prospect by the glade of evergreens the town’s curvilinear street plan can be seen to advantage, with its twists and turns providing privacy and beauty for the small community, in stark contrast to the regular gridwork of burgeoning Chicago’s plan. The Lake Forest street plan’s only outlets were ahead to the west near the tracks and depot, so that only invited guests effectively could find people in town and could only arrive announced; north and south the streets rounded out at ravines - at Spruce on the north and at Washington Road/Washington Circle and Ringwood on the south. This would have been useful before the Civil War if fugitive slaves were present. The innovative plan was the creation of pioneer cemetery landscape designer Almerin Hotchkiss of St. Louis (see Professor Michael Ebner’s 1988 book, Creating Chicago’s North Shore, pp. 243-46; the article on “Cemeteries” by Blanche Linden-Ward in American Landscape Architecture: Pioneers and Places, ed. William H. Tischler, publ. by the National Trust, 1989, pp. 120-125; and the Minutes of the Lake Forest Association, pp. 18 and 32).
6. Northeast of the Hotel site across Walnut Avenue and facing Washington Road is the site of Lake Forest’s first Public School (now located at 334 East Westminster, discussed below, #11), where Roxana Beecher who was a niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe was the first teacher, from 1860 to 1863. The daughter of outspoken anti-slavery sympathizer Edward Beecher, who taught Patterson at Illinois College in Jacksonville before Patterson went to Lane, Roxana Beecher presided over the regular school and also an evening school which included three African-Americans and ten European Americans, according to Arpee (pp. 78-9), meeting three nights per week from seven to nine. The regular school had forty-eight students in 1862, but only thirty-six by 1863 — perhaps reflecting troop call-ups and worker shortages in Chicago as a result of the war. But the founding Lake Foresters’ commitment to literacy for former slaves, whose earlier status in bondage had precluded such learning, is at the root of the town’s public-education system, which was integrated from the start.
Gilbert Rossiter House Site
7. Return to the path and proceed west through the park just a bit. On the left or south side of the street is the original site of the 1859 Gilbert Rossiter house (now located at 408 East Illinois, discussed below, #16). Tradition has it (Arpee, pp. 60-61; see also the 1991 Supplement by Susan Dart, p. 294)* that on April 2, 1860 Lincoln stopped here to visit (between trains) the brother-in-law of Norman B. Judd, who in May 1860 would nominate Lincoln as the Republican candidate for president in the Wigwam, Chicago. Lincoln had gone to Waukegan from Chicago that day by train to make a speech which was cut short by a fire and then returned to Chicago, making a short stop in Lake Forest. Lincoln and his friend Norman B. Judd, who was the brother of Mrs. Rossiter, would have stopped between trains before or after Lincoln was returning from a speech and overnight stay in Waukegan. Lincoln’s moderate position on slavery (against it in the western territories where Chicago business wanted to expand, but opting to leave it to die out in the south) allowed him to gain enough votes in a four-way race in November of 1860 to carry the White House. His position was much the same as that of the moderate Lake Forest founders.
*Edward Arpee reports a “Tribune” newspaper saying the future president stopped at “Lake Forest, Illinois,” suggesting that this was an out-of-state paper, such as the New York or Springfield (Massachusetts) Tribune. This reference is not found in the Chicago Tribune. The Judds corresponded with the Lincolns, letters earlier in the College’s Special Collections (no record of a Lincoln letter previously reported donated here; a letter from Mrs. Lincoln to Mrs. Judd was tranfered to the Abraham Lincoln Library ca. 2002; see Judd papers).
8. Proceed west to McKinley Avenue. On the right across the street can be seen the railroad station, on the site of the original depot where Lincoln arrived in Lake Forest, according to tradition, and where later Samuel Dent and after him Julian Matthews (#9, 10 and 18 below) were the livery drivers. Dent and Matthews took residents home and delivered visitors otherwise helpless in finding residents’ homes.
Dent was a much-loved and respected member of the community: an ex slave from Tuscumbia, Alabama who escaped and entered the Union army in 1862, serving for the rest of the war. He came to town in the 1870s, according to Arpee (p. 71). He and his wife, Elizabeth Jane, lived the rest of their lives in town, according to the cemetery book (p. 38). Dent is buried in the cemetery, section A, with a large monument contributed by the community and outlining his remarkable history. Dent is pictured with his wagon at the depot in Ebner’s Creating Chicago’s North Shore, p. 76. After the Civil War when the town gained a reputation for natural beauty, Dent pioneered sight-seeing tours of the estates for visitors. Toward the end of Chatfield-Taylor’s 1894 novel An American Peeress a character modelled on Dent drives the protagonist and her husband from the depot to her family home near the lake, catching her up on all the local gossip. William E. Danforth’s February 1890 Stentor interview with Dent, then ill in bed, provides a heretofore unreported slave narrative, in this case conveyed in the “local color” dialect popular at the time. The cemetery book observes that Dent’s funeral was in the Presbyterian Church on June 11, 1890, though Arpee reports that Dent, like Marshall (see #1 above), was a leader of the A.M.E. church located on what now is South Campus (see # 13 below).
First Ice-Cream Parlor
9. Proceed west across the tracks and Western Avenue to Walgreen’s. This probably is the site of Lake Forest’s first ice-cream parlor, an early African-American business. The local Historical Society’s book on Lake Forest Cemetery (1994) reports (p. 63) that this was owned by Octavia Matthews (1860-1926), the wife of Julian Matthews who was coachman to University president William Roberts (from 1886 to 1892) and lived above the now-demolished coachhouse behind (north of) Patterson Lodge, then the President’s House (see below, #18). But even earlier the Lake Forest University Review (v. I, Jan.-May, 1880) includes ads for Annie Williams’ bakery and ice-cream store, before the Matthews arrived in town. Williams may have been a member of the African American family which was long-established on Washington Road south of Illinois.
10. Turn north on Western Avenue and proceed to the corner of Market Square in front of B. Dalton’s Bookstore. This is the approximate site, according to the Cemetery book, of Octavia Matthews’ restaurant and bakery and Julian Matthews’ livery business from the 1890s when the Matthews built it until 1912 when it was torn down to make way for Market Square. The family lived in a second-floor apartment over the restaurant. Arpee (pp. 128-29) characterizes Julian Matthews as an “enterprising and versatile business man.” He came with Pres. Roberts in 1886 from Virginia where he had been born a slave, bringing the new President’s horses in a boxcar. After 1892 the Matthews livery service delivered Octavia’s baked goods, moved summer people to and from Chicago as the seasons changed, and ran concession wagons at Onwentsia Club horse shows and Academy football games. The Matthews are buried in Section B of the cemetery.
Where Roxana Beecher Taught
11. Continue north on Western Avenue to the intersection with Westminster, turn right and walk back east to 334 East Westminster — a few doors beyond McKinley on the north side of the street: the original public school building where Roxana Beecher taught former slaves evenings and, presumably, their children days from 1860 to 1863. This two-story Italianate building perhaps had an apartment for the teacher on the second floor. The school is pictured in the Preservation Foundation Guide as #22. Roxana was the niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1853) , the daughter of the famous author’s more radically Abolitionist brother, William.
Rumsey Carriage House
12. Cross the street and go south down the alley to the Mansard-roofed Quinlan/Rumsey carriage house, originally the property of the Charles Quinlan house at 404 East Deerpath. Here Walker Sales, an African American, worked as a coachman for Captain I. P. Rumsey from 1890 to 1900. Sales came from Morgantown, Kentucky. He later served as a policeman, from 1900 to 1919 (see below, #14).
13. Backtrack up the alley and proceed back west on Westminster, across the tracks and three blocks further to Oakwood Avenue and turn left; proceed south to the Baptist Church, 673 North Oakwood, alone on the east side of the street, organized in July 1900 and continuously in operation since. This is the second African-American church in Lake Forest, following the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church on Washington Road, founded in 1866 and with its own building built in 1870 and continuing into the 1920s (see south tour; Arpee, p. 76).
14. Continue south on Oakwood toward Deerpath. Approaching Deerpath, across the parking lot on Forest Avenue is the Southgate Restaurant, formerly the Lake Forest Police and Fire Station; also on the left or to the east, facing Deerpath, is the Lake Forest City Hall, the main part of which was built in 1898 (Preservation Foundation Guide #31). In these buildings Walker Sales (1865-1919) was employed as the night-duty policeman from 1900 to 1919 — first from City Hall and later in the Southgate building after it was built in 1901 (see the Supplement to Arpee by Susan Dart, Historical Society, 1991, p. 333). Sales married America Bridgeman, a graduate of Fiske University, while on the City staff. The Sales are buried in Lake Forest Cemetery (Cemetery book, p. 67).
Gorton Community Center
15. Continue south on Deerpath to Illinois Road; turn left or east. Proceed approx. three blocks — through the light, under the viaduct, and on the sidewalk on the north side east to Gorton Community Center (Guide #32), where from the 1960s to the 1980s the Samuel Dent Memorial Jazz Band performed regularly in the Baggett Auditorium. Led by the late Brooks Smith, this popular European-American ensemble in the Dixie-Land mode honored the memory of the venerable Dent in their African American-inspired music.
Original 1859 Rossiter House (relocated)
16. The first house east of Gorton is the original 1859 Gilbert Rossiter house at 408 East Illinois Road. This is the handsome Italianate house Lincoln is supposed to have visited briefly on April 2, 1860 (Arpee, p. 60-61, cites an April 3, 1860 Tribune story). Donnelley Library’s Special Collections has a group of Judd family papers containing a fall 1860 letter from Mrs. Lincoln to Mrs. Judd, confirming the family friendship and habit of visiting each other. Norman B. Judd was a key political advisor who travelled east with Lincoln when the Great Emancipator journeyed to assume the presidency early in 1861. He was present when an assassination plot against Lincoln was discovered and avoided. A pamphlet with the Judd family papers gives Judd’s first-hand account of how history barely missed being derailed as Lincoln’s train sped eastward to his inauguration. The Judds later went to Berlin when Lincoln appointed Norman Judd the U.S. ambassador to Bismarck’s Prussia, a rising European power then. The Judds returned after Lincoln’s death (1865) and lived in Lake Forest when not in Washington while Norman Judd served in Congress.
17. Continue on Illinois Road and then east on College Road across Washington going toward Sheridan Road. On the left is the DeVillo Holts’ spacious grounds and 1860 house, “The Homestead” (Guide #43). Holt’s Chicago lumber business is reported to have been another station on the Underground Railroad. Here fugitives from southern plantations would have been put on ships north to Holt’s lumber yard and mill at Oconto, Wisconsin on Green Bay, also passing the refueling stop at Death’s Door, mentioned in connection with Sylvester Lind, #3 above. Holt was an early trustee of the University, as well.
18. Proceed across Sheridan into the Campus. On the left or to the north is Patterson Lodge (Guide #36), built in 1880 during the presidency of Rev. Daniel Gregory, the University’s second president (1878-86) and the first on its permanent campus. It was in a carriage house behind or north of this house that the Julian Matthews family (see #9 and 10 above) lived from 1886 to 1892, while in the employ of Pres. William Roberts. When Roberts came to the College from Kentucky he brought the Matthews family with him.
19. Continue east to North Hall (1880; Guide #37), originally the second Lake Forest Academy building and reflecting the layout, scale, and style of the Italianate original on North Campus, which burned in 1879. The new building, though, was brick rather than frame. Here Alexander Marshall (1821-1913) continued as custodian, into the 1890s (see Academy, #1 above). Marshall also was the town’s first poundmaster (stray animals) and, continuing into his retirement, an active member of the A.M.E. Church, located on what now is South Campus (Lake Forest Cemetery, p. 62, and Arpee, p. 149).
The accompanying very helpful map is both the conception and work of Monique Coleman, LIT’s administrative assistant, in part adapted from a section of the map on p. 338 of Susan Dart’s 1991 Supplement to Edward Arpee’s 1963 history.
Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections 1996 - 2013
February 12, 1997; partially updated January 13, 2011