For many, Galesburg’s Civil War history consists mostly of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Knox. According to Owen Muelder ’63, however, Galesburg also played an important role in the anti-slavery movement, with connections to the Underground Railroad running deep.
About 25 students, staff and community members crowded into the front room of the Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality (ABLE) House to hear Muelder speak about Galesburg’s connections with the Underground Railroad. In fact, there were several Underground Railroad “operators” in Galesburg who sheltered slaves trying to escape the United States.
“I hope you guys recognize that where we are at this place, at this school, is not just another school out west,” Muelder said. “This town was so strongly anti-slavery that I haven’t found one case of a slave who was returned to slavery once they got into Galesburg.”
Muelder cited examples of operators including R.C. Edgerton, who told slave catchers to leave town, and Rev. Samuel G. Wright, who convinced a church to not give communion to pro-slavery church members. These accomplishments were helped along by an already strong anti-slavery consciousness in Galesburg thanks to the presence of the Great Revival movement, which believed slavery was a sin.
Perhaps the most moving story was that of Susan Richardson, an escaped slave who was caught in Galesburg in 1842 but was released by the sheriff and built a new life for herself in the town. In the course of his research, Muelder learned that Richardson was buried in Hope Cemetery at the corner of Main St. and Academy St.
“[I] get in the car and go down to Hope Cemetery … and there it is, and there was no headstone,” Muelder said. With the help of Galesburg resident Martin Reichel, he was able to eventually obtain one.
According to Muelder, Galesburg’s abolitionist attitude even had an effect on Lincoln. It was in Galesburg at the senatorial debate that Lincoln first publicly said that slavery was immoral.
“[Lincoln] turns to [Stephen] Douglas at that debate and says to the crowd, ‘You are blowing out the moral lights around us,’” Muelder said. “This is our history. … I wish it was a story everyone associated with Knox.”
Muelder directs the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Station at Knox. His talk was sponsored by ABLE as part of Knox’s 175th anniversary celebrations.