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Peoria was a dangerous place to be an abolitionist in the antebellum days

 A stanch abolitionist, Moses Pettengill is credited as the founder of Peoria's Underground Railroad.
A stanch abolitionist, Moses Pettengill is credited as the founder of Peoria's Underground Railroad.

Illinois was a free state in the decades before the American Civil War, but that doesn't mean it was always friendly to anti-slavery sentiment.

Minister and newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in Alton in 1837 for his abolitionist beliefs. Things weren't always easy in Central Illinois, either.

"Moses Pettingill writes that his church that he formed when he moved here, and his businesses, all suffered because of his beliefs," said Corey Curtis, a volunteer with the Peoria Historical Society. "One historian said that outside of Alton, Illinois, Peoria was the most dangerous place to be in Illinois, for an abolitionist."

Pettingill and his wife, Lucy, arrived in Peoria in the 1830s to get a fresh start. Their 1868 mansion still stands today on Moss Ave., but the family lived downtown in the years before the war.

That house, which stood where the Peoria Civic Center now is, was a depot on the Underground Railroad. That's the network which helped people escaping slavery on their journey north.

The activities of Peoria's abolitionists weren't exactly secret, though.

"It was fairly out in the open, although Pettingill and his affiliates didn't really advertise when and where," Curtis said. "But it was well know in Peoria that Moses Pettingill was helping runaway slaves up north. And there are actually newspaper accounts that I found that discuss how open Peoria is, and how many slaves at that time are coming through that area."

Not everybody approved of the activities of Pettingill and his fellow abolitionists. Curtis said abolitionists were assaulted on numerous occasions in Peoria's early history, and the meetings of Pettingill's anti-slavery society were regularly disrupted by threats of violence.

Abolitionism, and the role of Peoria's Black community in the movement, are subjects of Curtis' upcoming presentations at the Pettingill-Morron House on Feb. 12.

Curtis recalled when Frederick Douglass was invited to speak at Peoria's Rouse Hall in the 1850s. He said that visit inspired a lot of pushback.

"The Peoria mentality, when you read about those opposed to the abolitionist movement, their whole theme was to preserve the status quo," said Curtis. "We don't want to anger the South. We don't want to totally give in to the abolitionists. It was status quo, and anything that upset the status quo, they would revolt against."

Black Peorians also sent 33 delegates to a state committee meeting in Chicago to discuss ways to advance more equitable treatment.

"Anything having to do with equal treatment, suffrage, anything like that. They would form these committees, and the delegates would discuss the best ways to go forward and advancing their cause, that would be accepted," Curtis said.

Once agreeing on a course, the committee pressed politicians and others friendly to their cause. Curtis said one of the committee's recommendations was successfully passed in Peoria.

Curtis' presentation on the Underground Railroad and Moses Pettingill will be hosted on Feb. 15 at the Pettingill-Morron House Museum, 1212 W. Moss Ave. Presentations begin at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., with each lasting about an hour. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for college and high school students, and $3 for kids ages 6 to 12.

Go to the historical society's website for more information.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.