Photo of Jackson Family, Afro-Choctaw siblings who grew up in Gary, Indiana in the Calumet Region
(Calumet, definition: a long ceremonial pipe used by Native Peoples.)
Cornfields on 95th Street
Southside Chicago never seemed quite like the rest of the city, especially the far south side like 95th street and beyond. When my paternal grandfather and his brother-in-law built his family home there in the 1940s, there was still plenty of open prairie around. He operated a poultry farm there for several years, though the land still lay within the Chicago city limits.
When I stayed there in the late 1960s, Grandpa’s chicken-and-egg operation was gone, but some of the lots were still vacant. By the late 1970s, my Mvskoke Creek aunt (my great-grandma’s sister) who lived a mile or two east on 95th street, converted a vacant lot into a cornfield. Her house was on a side street, and the backyard of her split-level was an arbor with squash-producing vines and other plants providing shade.
Though this was supposed to be the City, but it felt like the Country.
Even farther south on 134th street lay the Altgeld Gardens, a complex of two-story townhouse-style apartments. We had relatives there, too. Altgeld Gardens lay in a bend of the Little Calumet River. Despite its later reputation for crime, my parents allowed me to wander around the neighborhood (at age nine) as if I was at home in upstate New York. Altgeld Gardens had lots of children, dogs (who weren’t technically allowed) and vegetable gardens. Black motorcyclists rode without helmets. It felt a bit like the Wild West. It felt like the country, too, as I imagine that most residents had roots in the South. Local historian Tom Shepherd described the large community garden, near Altgeld, on 134th street as “where it feels like Mississippi.”
Even in my fading memories of the South Side, it feels less like a Black “ghetto” than a Black Indigenous country. It’s large and expansive, not cramped and dense like my mom’s former neighborhood near Maxwell Street, closer to downtown Chicago.
The South Side felt Indigenous. It felt like Indian Country, even though technically it wasn’t. Then again, Altgeld Gardens was built by the U.S. Office of Public and Indian Housing, which, at the time (1945), reported to the Department of the Interior, which also included the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so maybe the U.S. government was hiding the truth in plain sight.
But I wanted to know something more, to find proof of a connection between the current residents of Chicago’s South Side, Potawatomie Indians, and even the Miami Indians who were supposedly all forced off their land in 1836 or earlier.
The Calumet Region, Potawatomi People and Freedom Seekers
After Algonquian Miami-Illinois Indians were forced deeper into Indiana by the Beaver Wars, the Potawatomi, another Algonquian People controlled the southeastern and southern shores of Lake Michigan, which they occupied by treaty after 1787. The Potawatomi are an Algonquian-speaking people, and were part of the massive trade networks spread across French-speaking North America. Many had converted to Roman Catholicism. The first permanent European settlement that became Chicago was founded in 1790 by Jean Baptiste DuSable, a Haitian-born French-speaking fur trader who married a Potawatomi woman, who gave birth to several children. Even as Chicago continued to grow as a French- and English-speaking town, the Calumet region, 15 miles to the south, remained in the hands of the Potawatomi. The Potawatomi community lay on both sides of the Illinois-Indiana state lines, as shown on the 1804 Scharff maps (more on that later).
Oddly enough, even after Indiana and Illinois became states (in 1816 and 1818, respectively), the far northwest portion of Indiana was not part of any congressional district because it was still under Indian, that is, Potawatomi, control. That was true until 1830, at least.
In 1836, the Potawatomi were officially forced out of the Chicago region. Most went west to Kansas on the Trail of Death; a smaller group relocated to southwestern Michigan. A still smaller number remained in northern Indiana as private landowners. The next year, the Potawatomi’s last stronghold in Indiana, was formed into Lake County.
Lake County is home to Gary, hometown of the Jackson Five. I had another Mississippi-born aunt who owned a house there from the 1940s to the 1960s. She kept gardens and many pets, and she used to fish in the nearby Calumet River on the Illinois side of the state line. (This same aunt spent part of her childhood in Holmes County, Mississippi, birthplace of the Order of the Eastern Star, of which she was a prominent member.)
According to local historians, freedom-seeking “runaway slaves” had been crossing the Calumet region since the 1820s. That was when it was still Potawatomi land. What was the Potawatomi people’s position on slavery? Did DuSable’s part-Black Potawatomi descendants have any influence on the issue? Were other Potawatomi partly-Black, or were some of the Freedom Seekers enslaved Indians who used the Indian trails to escape? Or did they remain in secret to avoid the Trail of Death on their westward forced removal?
In any case, the Potawatomi don’t seem to have stopped the Freedom Seekers, so presumably they were sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause. Did any Freedom Seekers actively seek the aid of any remaining Potawatomi landowners?
After the supposed expulsion of most Potawatomi, the forested Calumet river continued to function as an escape route for Freedom Seekers, some coming as far away as Mississippi to journey to Detroit and then to Canada. Later in the 1920s, a Black-owned airport was built there and helped train Tuskegee Airmen. (Tuskegee means “warriors” in Mvskoke). In the 1950s, a Black-owned marina was built on the Little Calumet river. And of course, Altgeld Gardens was built there in 1945 for Black factory workers, by the office of Public and Indian Housing.
The Chicago side of the Little Calumet region is still forested, while the Indiana side is heavily industrialized, with many steel mills. Still, you can take kayaking tours on the Little Calumet River as part of the Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Tour.
95th Street a Portage Trail?
The Albert Scharf maps of Chicago are available online and show various Indian villages and ceremonial mounds as they existed in 1804. Some of the later urban grid streets are overlaid as to give a more recent point of reference. Of course, I was drawn to 95th street. On the Scharf map, 95th street runs due west from a large Indian village that sits at the same current location as Cottage Grove Heights and a campus of the Chicago State University. This large village, which also includes woods, waterways and farmland, extends over into Indiana. It covers the south shore of Lake Michigan, notably where the Calumet River empties into that lake. This region now includes the Indiana cities of Gary, Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago. Given its extreme practicality as a waterway, it was undoubtedly well populated in its pre-European period.
My hypothesis is this: that 95th street was a portage trail from this large Indian village to Stony Creek, just west of the current Chicago city limits. It runs due west, unlike most Indian trails, for the simple reason that due west is the most direct route to the headwaters of Stony Creek. The trail’s use continued after Indian removal because it was useful. When the trail was widened and named 95th street, it still maintained some status, as evinced by prominent institutions built there, such as the university, and the terminal station of the Chicago mass transit Red Line.
My father worked in one of the Chicago steel mills, owned by US Steel, which was just a few miles eastward from his parents’ home on 95th street. There are even more abandoned steel mills on the Indiana side of the Calumet region. Railroad tracks cross through the area and even an oil refinery is close by. Industrial barges still ply parts of the Calumet river, but upstream the vegetation has been allowed to return to the riverbanks, giving it a tranquil, bucolic feel that only comes from floating on a river, if I can believe from the YouTube videos on the region. (I have a thing for rivers. My brother and I call the river we grew up on “Mother Susquehanna.”)
Robbins, the still-thriving All-Black Town
I had not even heard of Robbins, the all-Black town founded in the Calumet region, when I started writing this article a few weeks ago. Robbins deserves its own article, but it’s worth noting that its appeal to Black Southerners in 1910 was the chance to have enough space to grow their own food and supplement the income from industrial jobs. There were also many Black-owned businesses, including the Black-owned Robbins airport. The Afro-Choctaw pilot Bessie Coleman was active there.
In Conclusion: Calumet Region as a place for Black Land-Based Empowerment
Sioux intellectual Vine Deloria, Jr., stated in 1969, Custer Died for Your Sins (Truly one of the great book titles of all time), that key difference between the Black Civil Rights movement and the Red Power movement was that Black activists sought greater power within White society, while Indians sought greater power for their own sovereign land base. That’s a simplification of Deloria’s argument, because he does acknowledge that the Black Power movement addressed community empowerment in a way similar to Red Power.
The Calumet Region retained a strong Indigenous presence even after the founding of Chicago, and it quickly acquired a strong Black presence that has not faded.
The Black people of the Calumet region seem to have pursued a land-based path to their empowerment. Keep in mind that going “back to the land” was not an automatic choice in early 1900s America. Some ethnic groups, such as the Italians and the Irish, largely avoided rural areas and preferred cities. But something drew Black Chicagoans to Mother Earth. With their community gardens, urban farms, airport, Indian reservation (Altgeld Gardens), and independent city (Robbins), the Black folks of Calumet built a semi-rural Indigenous home for themselves largely inside one of America’s largest cities and heavily industrial zones.
Perhaps the secret to Calumet region’s permanence as a home to Black people is not some overarching ideology, or great wealth, but deep familial, agricultural and spiritual roots that grew deep into the prairie soil on the south shore of Lake Michigan, and the banks of the Calumet River.
“Slowik: Tour highlights Calumet-area stops along the Underground Railroad,” Chicago Tribune July 23 2019.
Open Lands.org, August 17, 2022
“Marking the Underground Railroad,” by Carrie Steinweg, Lansing Journal, March 11, 2018, Calumet City, Illinois.
“Robbins, Illinois” entry in Encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org.