Illinois had many places that were stops along the Underground Railroad, but few were as brazen in helping escaped slaves as Wheaton College in DuPage County.
At the time, the college had just one building, a three-story limestone structure on a hill. The building — which has since had several additions that have turned it into a broad, fortress-like structure — was later named after the school’s third president and staunch abolitionist, Jonathan Blanchard.
Inside Blanchard Hall, physical remnants of the building’s Underground Railroad days are gone.
What was once a chapel where escaped slaves gathered is now a series of staircases, landings, and study nooks. Two basement tunnels where fugitives were rumored to have hid were partially filled in during a 1980s renovation.
Bruce Koenigsberg, an architect for Wheaton College, said those spaces were lost largely because the Underground Railroad tales were mostly considered legend at the time of the renovations. They would later be confirmed through the writings of former students.
‘Perfectly safe’ at Wheaton College
One such student was Ezra Cook, who described how the college was openly helping fugitives in what was otherwise a clandestine operation.
“Runaway slaves were perfectly safe in the college building,” wrote Cook, a student in 1861 who later fought in the Civil War. “No attempt was made to conceal their presence, which was well known to the United States Marshal stationed there. With hundreds of others, I have seen and talked with such fugitives in the college chapel. Of course, they soon took a night train, well-guarded to the next station of the U.G.R.R.”
Wheaton was founded on abolitionism
Abolition was one of the founding precepts of the Illinois Institute, which would later become Wheaton College.
The founders believed slaveholding was a sin explicitly prohibited by the Bible, and ridding the country of slavery was their religious crusade.
In fact, Wheaton was described as “an anti-slavery school in a beautiful rolling rich prairie country” in the first announcements printed about the school.
Helping slaves from Cincinnati to Wheaton
By the time Blanchard got to Wheaton, he had already spent about 25 years working for abolition, which he saw as a step toward the spiritual perfection of humankind.
He had published an abolitionist newspaper in Ohio, been a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery in London in 1843, and spent a dozen years as president of Knox College, another institution founded by abolitionists in Galesburg, Illinois.
With his wife, Mary, he may have harbored fugitives from slavery at their home in Cincinnati, Ohio starting in 1838.
Honoring the historic building
The college has done a lot to enshrine the building’s legacy. Inside the front door of one of the additions, an octagonal tower, is the former grave marker of abolitionist James Burr.
Burr, who spent five years in prison for trying to help slaves in Missouri escape into Illinois, was buried on Wheaton's campus. He even willed $300 of his $4,000 estate to the school, to be used to educate “young men who were wholly devoted to the cause of Christ (and) opposed to slavery,” according to the signage that accompanies his obelisk.
Today, the first floor of Blanchard Hall also has a permanent exhibit about the history of African-American worship.
“Like the men and women who first built Blanchard Hall, we remain committed to ensuring that any man or woman who enrolls at Wheaton College — from any country or ethnic background — receives a first-rate Christian liberal arts education,” Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said in a statement.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and The Morning Shift's "What's That Building?" contributor.