The wealthy Presbyterians who founded Lake Forest—college and town—in the 1850s were staunch abolitionists. Legend has it that these lumber and merchant barons were important links in the Underground Railroad, moving escaped slaves through Illinois on their way to Canada. Sylvester Lind, for example, told a reporter long after the fact that he had smuggled runaways on his lumber-bearing lake steamers. When the steamers stopped at a Door County island to take on wood, the refugees would transfer to another boat, one that took them near enough to the Canadian border to jump to safety. There were black families living in Lake Forest at the time of the Civil War. They worked in the great houses and their children attended the public school, where their teacher was Roxanna Beecher, a niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Some of them lived on the estates; others began to develop their own neighborhoods on what were then the fringes of the town–especially the area west of the railroad tracks.
Blacks were welcome after the Civil War too, says Lake Forest College archivist Arthur Miller. They worked as domestics, coachmen, and gardeners, and established small businesses that served the estates. One such business was “hauling”—transporting people and their belongings back and forth from the train station. Since many of the estates were summer homes, there was a lot of seasonal coming and going–with a great deal of material trappings. Samuel Dent, a former slave who had served in the Union army, arrived in Lake Forest after the Great Chicago Fire, borrowed money from a professor at the college to buy a horse and rig, and started what became a locally famous livery service. He paid the loan back in three months and eventually built a stable at 179 E. Deerpath. Another livery driver, Julian Matthews, came to town in 1885 as coachman to the president of the university. When the president left, Matthews elected to stay in Lake Forest. He and his wife opened a restaurant and sprawling stable directly across from the train station. As early as 1870 there was an African-American church in town—five years before the first Catholic church. The second black congregation, the First Baptist Church, was founded in 1900 and still meets in its original building at 673 N. Oakwood.
“Maybe because Lake Forest was so clearly designated two classes—the rich people and local industry—African-Americans didn’t encounter the kind of prejudice they might have found in other towns,” Miller speculates. “They were encouraged to take root here. But after the turn of the century, things changed, and after World War I there was clear prejudice. They began to be urban-renewaled out.” Some of this had to do with the “separate but equal” decision of the Supreme Court in 1896, Miller says. But mostly it was “because the perception of what the town was had changed. The real town of Lake Forest ended at the tracks until the 1890s. Over there [west of the tracks] was the business area, and people on the estates didn’t go there—it was like going into the kitchen of an estate house. They didn’t care who lived there, they didn’t care what it looked like. It was invisible. But in 1895 they built Onwentsia country club west of town and a whole bunch of estates began to spring up over there, and all of a sudden this was the center of town.” They paid handsomely, Miller says, but they bought out Matthews and other black businesses near the train station in 1912 and built Market Square. The Deer Path Inn also replaced an African-American enclave.
Since then, the black population of Lake Forest has steadily dwindled. As recently as the 1970s, Miller says, there were about 300 blacks living in town; now he guesses the population is down to about 25 families, not counting students at the college. Evidence of the thriving black community that once was there can still be found if you know where to look. Miller has written a guide for a walking tour, “African American History in Lake Forest,” and he’ll lead one Thursday, September 14, as part of the 20th annual Statewide Preservation Conference at the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest. One of the stops will be Samuel Dent’s cement-block stable, which now houses an antique shop. “Dent had accumulated some serious resources,” says Miller. “He didn’t get urban-renewaled out because he wasn’t right in the middle of town–the building wasn’t visible from the depot.”