Wheaton College is known as one of the nation’s top Christian schools and one of the world’s most influential evangelical institutions, but few think of it as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Well, that’s about to change. Newly unearthed information now supports long-running claims that Wheaton was indeed part of that historic network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North.
“I was blown away,” Wheaton College history professor David Maas. “We’ve suspected Wheaton was a station forever, but we’ve not had any evidence.”
This year, during his research for a book manuscript on the abolitionist roots of Wheaton College and its involvement in the Civil War, Maas discovered written documentation that supports the claim, a narrative from the 1800s by Ezra Cook. A Wheaton student and Civil War veteran, Cook wrote of Wheaton as being “an Abolition school in an Abolition town.” He also described how Blanchard Hall, the oldest surviving building on Wheaton’s campus, became a safe house for runaway slaves.
Maas’ discovery corroborates the research of Wheaton resident, a nationally recognized historian of the Underground Railroad who has studied its presence in DuPage County for more than 40 years. Turner’s books include The Underground Railroad in Illinois.
“I was so pleased to know that there are additional finds that cemented and further confirmed the role of Wheaton College in the Underground Railroad. I’m delighted that there are new discoveries,” Turner says. “The Underground Railroad has all the intrigue of a great mystery, and the thrill of a great adventure.”
“This gives Wheaton College its first documented evidence of the College grounds being used as a stop on the Underground Railroad,” says David Malone, head of archives and special collections at the school. “We knew that the founders of Wheaton College were ardent abolitionists who were involved in the Underground Railroad in other places and at other times, but we never could say to the level of certainty that some historians desire.”
The timing of the discovery is also significant because Wheaton College is currently observing its sesquicentennial — the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1860.
Adds Malone: “The discovery … helps us understand more deeply the rich heritage of Wheaton College, especially [its early leaders’] willingness to take significant risks for justice and freedom.”
For more of the history, check out Wheaton’s archives blog.