Painting by Chrissie Chapman.

A Book Store on Hallowed Ground

by

John J. Dunphy

I work in a shrine to freedom. Six days a week I can be found in a structure that epitomizes humanity’s courage and compassion as well as the refusal of the oppressed to remain in chains. My book store occupies the first floor of a building that served as a station on the Underground Railroad.

This particular railroad was no ordinary means of transportation. It contained no locomotives, cabooses or even tracks. The Underground Railroad didn’t require physical cars to transport its passengers. Instead, it depended on courageous men and women who were willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to aid those fleeing the horrors of bondage.

The Underground Railroad consisted of various routes that stretched across states. The men and women who led escaped slaves along these routes were known as “conductors.” Many Americans have at least heard of Harriet Tubman, who was one of the best-known and most successful conductors.

Typically moving only at night, these conductors led runaway slaves to a series of safe houses, referred to as “stations,” where abolitionists hid fugitive slaves. The abolitionist homeowners, called “stationmasters” gave these runaways — referred to as “passengers” or “cargo” — shelter, food and clothing before they journeyed to their next station, which was typically another safe house located north. These desperate men, women and children wanted to get as far north as their weary legs could carry them. Slave-catchers were less likely to locate fugitives who put down roots in a state far from the Mason-Dixon line. Canada was a popular destination after 1833, when the British Empire finally abolished slavery.

The abolitionists, such as the couple who owned the building I now occupy, were well aware of the dangers involved with participation in the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 authorized the seizure of runaway slaves and a fine of $500 levied against anyone who aided these fugitives. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was even more severe. It mandated six months’ imprisonment for anyone who offered shelter, clothing or food to a fugitive as well as a fine of $1,000.

The Federal-style building that houses my book shop was constructed in 1831. It is located in a small Illinois city on the Mississippi River, which divides Illinois from Missouri. Illinois was a free state, while Missouri permitted slavery. For fugitive slaves, the Mississippi was the dividing line between perpetual bondage and the opportunity to live free. This Illinois city’s location ensured that it would play a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. This building’s purchase in 1847 by Elijah and Sarah Dimmock, a couple who had moved to Illinois from Massachusetts in 1840, ensured that it would become an Underground Railroad station.

Elijah Dimmock was an ardent abolitionist, who determined that a windowless room behind the kitchen would serve as an ideal location to hide fugitives. When night fell, Dimmock or another abolitionist would transport the fugitive(s) to the next station on the Underground Railroad. Sarah Dimmock feared for her family’s safety. When Susan, her sister who had come to Illinois with them, visited the Dimmock household, she would sometimes find Sarah crying with fear. She would point to the kitchen and say, “He’s got one in there!” Her apprehension was not without foundation. On at least one occasion, a slave-catcher who came to Alton in pursuit of a fugitive angrily confronted Dimmock and even threatened his life. “For many years,” according to an old memoir, “the family lived under a constant nervous strain.”

Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery only in states in rebellion against the Union. Missouri didn’t secede, so slavery still existed within its borders. Fugitives from the Show-Me state continued to seek refuge at the Dimmock home during the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery in the entire United States. No longer needed, the Underground Railroad passed into history.

I tell everyone who visits my book shop about this building’s role in the Underground Railroad. “Fugitive slaves first tasted freedom here,” I say. “This is hallowed ground.” I recall a man who smiled and quoted Exodus 3:5, where God admonished Moses to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” Of course I have no intention of asking my customers to remove their shoes upon entering. Make no mistake, however: this ground is hallowed. It was made so by the courage and compassion demonstrated by the Dimmocks.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store