The African American Heritage Water Trail flows through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and nearly two centuries of African American history—sites and figures who whose impact remains with us today. The Heritage Water Trail honors this history by tracing the remarkable stories of African Americans who settled along the river: freedom seekers who traveled the Underground Railroad, trailblazers who defied discrimination and achieved great feats in their fields, and pioneers in the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice. These acts of courage and fortitude have shaped our nation and left their mark on significant events in African American history, including:
Underground Railroad: Before the Civil War, thousands of people fleeing slavery passed through Chicago or its south suburbs where they found a supportive community willing to hide, feed and help them on their way. Ton Farm was a well-documented stop on the Underground Railroad; and Dolton Ferry and Bridge provided an important passage for hundreds of freedom seekers crossing the river on their way to Canada via Chicago or Detroit.
Civil Rights: Many important pioneers in the struggle for civil rights left their mark here and across the nation. Especially notable people and sites include Bishop Louis Henry Ford, the minister and advocate for whom the freeway was named; Larry Hawkins, the teacher, mentor, and coach; Marshall “Major” Taylor, the first African American international sports star and a world champion bicycle rider; Chicago’s Finest Marina, the oldest black-owned marina in the Chicago region; and the Village of Robbins, unique in its support of African American entrepreneurs and wealth creation.
The Birth of Environmental Justice: Environmental justice is a civil rights movement demanding reforms to protect people of color who are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards where they live and work. Altgeld Gardens, one of the first public housing developments in the U.S., is where it all began, under the leadership of local resident Hazel Johnson.
Welcoming Communities: Altgeld Gardens was originally designed as a model “Garden City”—a self-contained community of residences and green space. In the segregated landscape of Chicago, it attracted the settlement of other black families into surrounding neighborhoods like Golden Gate, Riverside Village, Pangea Lakes and Concordia Place. A bit further down the river is the Village of Robbins, one of the very few towns in the United States governed at its incorporation by African Americans. It attracted black Chicagoans seeking economic opportunities and leisure activities free of white harassment.
For a complete guide to the sites and landmarks along the river, visit the African-American Heritage Water Trail Storymap, which you can print and take on your excursion. You can also download thebrochure.