On Chicago's South Side, a New River Trail Guides the Way Through Nearly Two Centuries of Black History
I'm a certified city girl. I have never paddled in any water before. But here I am, miles from downtown Chicago, in a canoe on the Little Calumet River, floating through the city's South Side. I find myself instantly connected to all that's happening around me: the strong swish of our paddles propelling us forward, the warmth of the bright sun on my face, the humming mills and factories lining the river that help keep Chicago running.
It's on this path that the African American Heritage Water Trail greets us. Openlands, a local conservation organization, created the trail to tell the often untold stories of Black Chicagoans. It includes 29 stops; experienced paddlers with their own boats can download a map to follow. But for newbies like me, there are guided tours with Openlands partners, such as Chicago Adventure Therapy.
Like many Black residents of the city, my family's Chicago foundation grows from our Southern roots. And what I learn on the trail is that this water—which links the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan—is more than just geography or scenery. It's the route many Black people took while fleeing enslavement for a better life, sometimes to Detroit, sometimes farther to Canada, where liberty was assured.
We start our journey at the Beaubien Woods Boat Launch near Altgeld Gardens, the public housing project where resident Hazel Johnson became the "Mother of Environmental Justice" for her activism starting in the 1970s. The next landmark is Ton Farm—a former Underground Railroad stop where countless freedom seekers passed through. Chicago's Finest Marina, a Black-owned business built in the 1950s in response to discrimination, now sits on the land. When Black people could not dock their boats elsewhere, this marina became a place of refuge.
I lived half of my childhood just miles from this site and yet, I never knew it existed. Today, this water is connecting me and carrying me, as it did so many others. For my enslaved ancestors who followed rivers to freedom, hymns like "Wade in the Water" were not just songs, they were instructions.
Our guides then lead us to the old Illinois Central Railroad. Trains helped Black people get to safety from southern Illinois during slavery. In the 20th century, during the Great Migration, they brought those like my family here.
Leaving the boat tour, a little damp but filled with pride,I check the weather to find a day to get my family on the water. This trail may be history, but the story isn't over.