The Underground Railroad, the path to freedom for countless American slaves, ran through the Chicago suburb of Maywood, where abolitionist and railroad “conductor” Zebina Eastman settled in later life. As a result of the connections between Maywood, the Underground Railroad and Eastman, a team of DePaul University archaeology students are beginning a long-term study of Maywood’s rich and intriguing past.
With the support of the West Town Museum of Cultural History/Maywood Historical Society and the Village of Maywood Special Events and Public Relations Commission, the DePaul Urban Historical Archaeology Field School met throughout the fall to investigate Maywood’s buried history. Excavations took place at 408 S. 6th Ave., where some believe the 1870s home of prominent Maywood resident Zebina Eastman stood.
While the investigation of the property failed to produce evidence of Eastman’s home, the project marks the beginning of a partnership between the museum, the Special Events Commission and the Department of Anthropology at DePaul. As part of this partnership, all are preparing for future archaeological studies that will resume in the spring and carry into future school years.
Northica Stone, president and CEO of the Museum and Operation Uplift, Inc.—a human service organization assisting youth and adults; Dawn Williams-Rone, chair of the Special Events Commission; and Jeri Stenson, curator of the museum, spearheaded the effort to have DePaul’s anthropology department hold its field school at historically significant sites in Maywood.
According to Stone, “Maywood has a rich and diverse history that needs to be told to a wider audience, and we think using archaeology is a wonderful way to draw attention to the village’s past.” Adding a personal note, Williams-Rone explained, “After a family member returned from a tour that draws people from all over the world to African-American slave sites in Savannah, Ga., it got me thinking about what we can do to focus on Maywood’s African-American history and raise community awareness about it.”
With these goals in mind, Williams-Rone approached DePaul’s anthropology department to explore conducting research in Maywood. As a result, Visiting Assistant Professor Michael M. Gregory toured several African-American related sites last summer with Stone, Williams-Rone and Stinson. They then selected the 6th Avenue property for the first field school project. The decision to investigate the Eastman house rested with the site’s potential historical significance, the controversy surrounding its exact location and because the landowner, Lyn Vallow, agreed to host the field school on her property.
During 1869, a group of Vermont businessmen formed a joint stock corporation known as the Maywood Company for the purpose of acquiring land to establish the Village of Maywood. Zebina Eastman purchased several village blocks from the company, building his home on Block 81. Prior to this, Eastman was a staunch abolitionist, operated as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, served as a friend and confidant to President Abraham Lincoln and wrote the Western Citizen, which became part of the Chicago Tribune. Although Eastman was a prominent citizen of Maywood, the exact location of his home remains in dispute. According to Vallow, who is a DePaul alumnus, that fact “is one of the reasons for giving the field school permission to excavate on my property. If the village ever has plans to commemorate the Eastman home site, I want to make sure the plaque is placed on the correct property.”
Nineteen anthropology majors from DePaul dug, sifted and researched the property to determine if the Eastman house existed at the address. No definitive artifacts dating to the 1870s have been found and historical research now suggests the Eastman house stood on the opposite side of the block, probably on the northwest corner of the intersection of South 7th Avenue and Randolph Street.
The possibility that the house may be located someplace else has not disappointed the students. Sophomore Matthew Alicz stated, “the thrill of discovery—learning something no one knew before--has always been a driving interest for me. And here we discovered the house existed someplace else. I want the chance to participate in actual excavations that give me experience I can use in my future career as an archaeologist.”
Even so, students have recovered a number of 20th-century artifacts, especially children’s toy parts, as well as many nails, glass fragments and burnt coal from the Vallow property. While not glamorous or works of art, the artifacts tell a story “about the people of Maywood whom history books largely ignore,” according to junior Laurel Appleton, “but who led lives that contributed for better or worse to America’s past and present.”
The last full on-site day for the course was Nov. 4 Follow-up work includes mapping the site and cleaning artifacts in DePaul’s archaeology laboratory. No additional excavations will be undertaken until spring 2012 when the field school resumes work at the current site, as well as one or two others that are under consideration. Future work will explore all parts of Maywood’s past and allow residents to contribute to and benefit from the project. Students will continue to gain practical archaeological field experience and learn firsthand the goals and organization of a community- based archaeological project.
Summarizing work completed to date, Gregory points out that “Ms. Stone, Dawn, and Jerri deserve much credit for pushing the project and holding to a vision that archaeology can draw attention to a community’s past, engage residents in that past and contribute to a greater sense of community pride. Based on the support we’ve received and on what we’ve accomplished this autumn, I look forward to maintaining a long-term partnership between the West Town Museum of Cultural History/Maywood Historical Society, Maywood’s Special Events Commission, and DePaul University.”
With more than 25,000 students, DePaul University is the largest Catholic university in the United States and the largest private, nonprofit university in the Midwest. The university offers approximately 275 graduate and undergraduate programs of study on three Chicago campuses and three suburban campuses. Founded in 1898, DePaul remains committed to providing a quality education through personal attention to students from a wide range of backgrounds. More information can be found at www.depaul.edu.