Illinois’ Old State Capitol in Springfield has been accepted to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, officials announced today.
The site, which is operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), is one of 17 new listings from the 43rd round of applications, representing sites and programs in 13 states across the United States. The new listings, alongside more than 700 sites, facilities and programs already in the Network, provide insight into the diverse experiences of freedom seekers who bravely escaped slavery and allies who assisted them.
“I’m proud to see the Old State Capitol recognized for its historical significance and look forward to the site educating each new generation on the atrocities of our past and our continued fight for equity,” said Governor JB Pritzker. “Illinois had an important and complex role in the abolitionist movement and the fight for freedom, and we need to share that history – the good and the bad – to understand where we’ve been and who we should aspire to be.”
“The people of Illinois deserve to understand and appreciate the history of struggle and legacy of resilience the Underground Railroad represents, as well as the brave in our state who played a role in the journey to freedom,” said Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton. “The Old State Capitol’s inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network of Freedom ensures this past will be honored and preserved so we may continue to learn from it and be inspired to keep moving forward.”
The Old State Capitol served as the seat of the Illinois Supreme Court from 1841 to 1872. During this time, the Court heard several cases that effected freedom seekers and allies operating within Illinois’ Underground Railroad. At least two cases were heard condemning allies who assisted freedom seekers: Eells v. The People and Willard v. The People, both of which ended in the court fining the “conductors.”
A third case, known only as Thornton’s Case, was brought by a Black man named Thornton who argued that a local constable wrongfully arrested him and that he should be freed. Because the local constable could not provide evidence to prove otherwise, the Illinois Supreme Court dropped the charges against Thornton and discharged him from custody.
“We are thankful to the team members who conducted the research on this project and collaborated to create a successful nomination,” said IDNR Director Colleen Callahan. “Thanks to their excellent work on behalf of history, we can now see the legal activity in the Old State Capitol included direct connections to the Underground Railroad.
“The bravery of freedom seekers and their allies inspired us to nominate the Old State Capitol for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom,” said Old State Capitol site superintendent Justin Blandford. “Joining the Network is part of our ongoing effort to uplift more voices in history and share a more rich and accurate picture of the past.”
The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom serves to honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide. The Network currently represents more than 700 locations in 39 states, plus Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Through its mission, the Network to Freedom helps to advance the idea that all human beings embrace the right to self-determination and freedom from oppression.
“Each Underground Railroad story documented by the Network to Freedom Program explains the harrowing risks people took to liberate themselves from an unjust system of oppression,” said national program manager Diane Miller. “The resilience and bravery of freedom seekers and their allies continues to inspire the Network to Freedom’s work. Alongside our members, new and old, we will continue to ensure that their stories are not lost to history.”
The Old State Capitol is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more or plan a visit, please visit https://bit.ly/IDNRosc.