Southern Illinois children find relics in home of freed slaves

Saturday, June 22, 2002

MILLER'S GROVE, Ill. --In the Shawnee National Forest sixth-grader Cody Webb grabbed a piece of glass out of the ground Friday in the ruins of this settlement of freed slaves and held it high against the sun.

"I found something!" the 11-year-old yelled to 10 other children unearthing what's left of a 19th century cottage buried in this remote corner of Southern Illinois.

"I'm helping people by finding stuff so they can learn about who lived here," said Webb of Olive Branch as he knelt back down to dig.

He was taking part in the U.S. Forest Service's excavation of a site dubbed Abbey's Place, a stone-and-log cabin where former slaves Bedford and Abigail Miller lived starting in the 1840s.

The cottage was part of a settlement of freed slaves co-founded by Bedford Miller after leaving bondage in Tennessee and crossing the Ohio River to Illinois, historians said.

Small, self-contained settlements of former slaves were once plentiful amid the hills and forests of the region, said John Y. Simon, a history professor at Southern Illinois University.

Many, like Miller's Grove, are little more than buried ruins today.

Children's dig

A few weeks of digging has unearthed two sandstone foundation walls at Abbey's Place and a mound of rocks thought to be what's left of a fireplace.

Diggers have found pieces of ceramic pots and dishes -- like the relic Cody Webb found -- as well as nails and part of a doll's head, said Vickie Devenport, a historian who consults on the excavation.

The Forest Service is giving children the chance to help dig this summer to encourage them to take pride in a region not known for its historical significance, or for much of anything else, said Pedro Delgado, 22, who helps lead the groups.

Pride in area

"We hope they get a sense of pride in the area and not be so eager to leave it," said Delgado of Chicago.

Historians also hope to learn about how such settlements here and in Indiana and Ohio may have played a role in the underground railroad, Devenport said.

"For a long time, people thought white people did all the work" along the secret network that helped escaped slaves, she said.

"But a lot of times African-Americans assisted their own families, and that's the research we're doing here," she said.

So far, they don't know whether Miller's Grove was a stop along the underground railroad, she said.

"But we want kids to know it's here," she said. "And that it's important."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: