Quincy, the first stop on the road to freedom
By Chloe Nott
America has had a long history of inequality and has a long way to go. Recently, Quincy has shown there is still inequity within society. But at one time, Quincy was the first underground railroad stop on the road to freedom.
Illinois was declared a free state in 1818, although current slave owners were permitted to retain current slaves. Pro-slavery groups continued to cause problems and control the state. However, a few abolition societies stayed committed to the freedom of slaves.
The Underground Railroad was a network of sites across several states that aided slaves in their escape. Slaves from Missouri attempted to escape their masters in search of freedom in Canada. Many swam across the Mississippi River to Quincy before heading North to Chicago. Aiding slaves in their escapes was a federal crime and many abolitionists were killed for their views and work.
The public view in Quincy was that private affairs of their “Missouri neighbors” were not to be meddled with. It was said that the underground railroad was detrimental to slaves in Missouri as it led to slaves being sold by good masters in the north to harsh masters in the south.
Dr. Richard Eells was a local physician and key leader of the underground railroad system in Quincy. In 1835 he purchased a house that became not only his family home, but a safe house of the underground railroad. Located at what is now 415 Jersey Street, just four blocks from the river, slaves often hid until they could continue their journey.
The house still stands today and has been designated as an official Historic Underground Railroad site by the by the National Park Service. It is maintained by the Friends of The Dr. Richard Eells House. The group has furnished the house in the style it may have looked in the 1840’s.
Dr. Eells was elected as president of the Adams County Anti-slavery Society in 1839. Four years later he was elected president of the Illinois anti-slavery society. Dr. Eells was responsible for helping hundreds of slaves during the late 1830’s and 1840’s.
On one occasion, after Dr. Eells was caught helping a slave, he was arrested and charged. After being convicted and ordered to pay $400 in Quincy, the case was appealed. The case made it to the Illinois State Supreme Court, then to the United States Supreme Court. Although the case did not rule in Dr. Eells favor, it was an early step in the fight for abolition of slavery in the US.
The Mission Institute was another underground railroad location in Quincy that harbored slaves. The Mission Institute was a place of Christian missionary training run by Dr. David Nelson. It was also used as a meeting place for abolitionists.
The general feeling over the next few decades would slowly become more anti-slavery, but there was still considerable resistance even after abolition laws were passed. In 1865, U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.
It is hard to imagine how slavery was once acceptable to the majority. But thanks to people like Dr. Eells, things began to change. We must continue to look forward in hope that further progress can be made, for equality in Quincy and the entire nation.