The Long Road to Freedom

Peoria and the Underground Railroad

The land on which the Peoria Civic Center now stands was once a prominent site on the historic Underground Railroad. To commemorate this history, the Civic Center is working with artist Preston Jackson to create the Underground Railroad Sculpture.

The Pettengills

To understand Peoria’s role in the history of the Underground Railroad, the story of Moses and Lucy Pettengill must be explained. After settling in Peoria in 1834, the Pettengills lived in a house at the corner of Liberty and Jefferson streets, where the Peoria Civic Center now stands, from 1836 to 1862. During this period, the home became a center for abolitionists in Peoria. This is not to be confused with the Pettengills’ last home, located on Moss Avenue and known today as the Pettengill-Morron House, which was completed in 1868.

Moses and Lucy were members and founders of the Main Street Presbyterian Church, which became known as the “Abolition Church,” as most of the abolitionists in Peoria at the time were members. Over the years, the church went through a series of name changes and moves, becoming the First Congregational Church in 1875. In 1937, it merged with the Second Presbyterian Church to become the First Federated Church, which is now located at 3601 N. Sheridan Road. This church still houses the bell that was rung after Union victories in the Civil War.

A respected businessman and civic leader with a reputation for honor and integrity, Moses was an ardent foe of slavery. His name appears in the earliest comprehensive list of abolitionists in Illinois, and he was one of nineteen men from Peoria County to sign a call in 1837 for an anti-slavery convention to be held in Upper Alton, Illinois. Later that year, the murder of the anti-slavery activist, Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, in Alton by pro-slavery supporters led to the strengthening of abolitionist sentiment in Peoria and throughout the country.

By 1843, the movement to establish local anti-slavery societies had begun to coalesce in Peoria. Moses was among those who held a meeting in the Main Street Church on February 13, 1843, to organize the Peoria Anti-Slavery Society. This meeting was halted by an angry mob of Peoria citizens who opposed the principles of abolitionists and threatened to boycott any paper that published notices of anti-slavery meetings. The next day, Moses met with other leaders of the movement and said, in response to their discouragement, “Gentlemen, I expect to live to see the time when there shall not be a slave in all this land.”

Risking his life and livelihood, Moses became a conductor of the Underground Railroad system, hiding, feeding and protecting slaves in his Peoria home. He and his wife worked with many other conductors on both sides of the Illinois River, delivering freedom-seeking fugitives to other Underground Railroad stations further north.

Lucy Pettengill was as much an activist as her husband, leading a group of women who came together to form the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Peoria in 1843. The next year, she helped to put together a statewide group, the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Illinois. Moses was a candidate on the Liberty Party ticket for numerous political positions, and both Pettengills would remain active in such causes throughout their lives.

A young lawyer from Springfield named Abraham Lincoln was a close friend of the Pettengills and the abolitionists who congregated in their home. It is said that Lincoln even looked similar in appearance to Moses Pettengill, with their striking cheekbones and prominent noses. Lincoln visited Peoria many times, often staying in the Pettengill home.

Lucy died in 1864, and Moses followed in 1883. Both are buried in Springdale Cemetery with their two children who passed away during childhood. The Pettengill home was torn down in 1910 to make way for the majestic Jefferson Hotel, which stood until 1978, when it was demolished to make way for the Peoria Civic Center.

Commemorating History

To commemorate the historical significance of the site and the courage of the Pettengills and the slaves seeking freedom, the Peoria Civic Center Authority sponsored an application to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. Barbara Meyn, a board member of the Peoria Historical Society at the time, compiled the research for the application. Upon the site’s acceptance to the program in December 2005, the Pettengill home site became one of 11 Illinois sites within the network.

Since that time, the Peoria Civic Center Authority has been raising funds for a sculpture dedicated to the Pettengills, to be created by Peoria artist Preston Jackson. Dr. Peter Couri, chairman of the Authority, considers the Civic Center the cultural center of Peoria. “This is our mission—this is part of the story of Peoria. We are trying to keep this story alive.” He explained that, in seeking out an artist to create the sculpture, all signs pointed toward Preston Jackson.

At the time he was approached about the commission, Jackson was working on his own historical sculptural series, Fresh from Julieanne’s Garden, so the subject matter and imagery were already very much on his mind. He feels very strongly about his role in the project, describing it as “my charge to tell this history.”

Considering the significant role of social and historical issues in his body of work, it only makes sense that Jackson would be the artist to create this piece. “I’m African-American, and my art is going to be about African-American involvement. And it’s [also] going to be about you, being Euro-American…that we share the same womb, and that is life itself, and that is family—all of those things that come with being human.”

Consisting of concrete, granite and stainless steel, the sculpture will stand about 20 feet tall. “It will be placed against the curvature of…the drum wall of the Civic Center, so it will merge or blend with that,” explained Jackson. He plans to work with two local companies, A. Lucas & Sons and Hanley Steel, Inc., on the fabrication of the steel infrastructure. Jackson will weld parts of the sculpture and cast the bronze reliefs, which will be fastened to the stainless steel structure.

The sculpture will symbolize the movement along the Underground Railroad to the Pettengill home, which will be positioned at the top, acting as a beacon for the fugitive slaves. The central figurative area will be cast in bronze with a partial framing of stainless steel. The figures will be loosely modeled, emphasizing the character and movement of the runaway slaves. The sculpture will also include related imagery such as lanterns, the North Star, Abraham Lincoln and the Illinois River crossing.

The state of Illinois recently mandated that public school districts teach one unit of slavery in the elementary and high schools. This sculpture promises to be a chance for students to gain knowledge about the rich history of Peoria and will be used as a teaching aide during Black History Month.

Marc Burnett, director of marketing and sales for the Civic Center, elaborated on a video with which he has been involved, that would not only chronicle the history behind Peoria’s Underground Railroad, but would also document Jackson’s process of creating the sculpture. “This video would air locally and would then be given to District 150 instructors to use as a teaching tool.”

Dr. Couri and others believe that the Underground Railroad Sculpture will be one of Jackson’s most memorable commissions to date. Jackson himself anticipates that it will be a striking presence for those who visit Peoria’s downtown. “It’s a very important piece of sculpture for Peoria, for the state and for the entire country. Thanks to Caterpillar and others, we have a lot of people coming into town from many parts of the world…so they will come here and recognize the fact that this is a diverse nation, and those who were in bondage at that time still played a very important part.” a&s

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