The Lombard Historical Society’s Footsteps to Freedom exhibit explores the history of the Underground Railroad by focusing on the work of local abolitionist Sheldon Peck. Peck’s 1839 homestead, the oldest house in the Village of Lombard, was a station on the Underground Railroad, and provides a lens through which visitors can understand larger themes about slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, race, and social justice.
Through thought-provoking text, reproduction objects, interactives, and the house itself as an object, Footsteps to Freedom brings a complex national story to a more immediate local level for visitors to analyze and experience. Discussions of Peck’s life as a radical abolitionist and his home’s significance as a refuge for enslaved people on the road to freedom are skillfully interwoven with current scholarship about the history and spread of slavery in nineteenth-century America. Archival and primary sources add to the discussion of the abolitionist community in the Lombard area.
The exhibit was particularly designed to engage student groups as well as older visitors who may not have studied the Underground Railroad in school. School groups are guided through the exhibit with worksheets tailored to their level, and throughout the space, visitors are invited to interact with the material and with each other. Panels and interactives prompt them to consider questions like: What would it have been like on a slave ship? Was the Underground Railroad just secret tunnels and trap doors? Why wouldn’t Sheldon Peck have supported Abraham Lincoln? Who was Old Charley and why is there a painting of him? Where in this house were freedom seekers hidden?
In Footsteps to Freedom, the Lombard Historical Society has created a thorough yet accessible interpretation of a tumultuous time period for visitors to experience. Teachers particularly have responded positively by incorporating the exhibit into their curriculum and suggesting new ways to connect students with the material. This thoughtful and deliberate treatment of difficult history pushed the boundaries for a small house museum and re-introduced an essential story to northern Illinois.