Southside Chicago never seemed quite like the rest of the city, especially
the far south side like 95th Street and beyond. When my 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 was still 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”, 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
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
The Calumet Region, Potawatomi People and Freedom Seekers
After the 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
After the supposed expulsion of most Potawatomi, the forested Calumet
River continued to function as an escape route for Freedom Seekers, some
coming from 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, the
Altgeld Gardens were 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: 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 their 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
Sioux intellectual Vine Deloria, Jr., stated in 1969, Custer Died for
Your Sins (Truly one of the great book titles of all time), that the 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.