Early settler aided freedom seekers along Underground Railroad; Sheldon Peck home restored, preserved radical history

As we celebrate Black History Month we take a look back at how one of the Chicago area's earliest settlers helped freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad, a well-known portrait painter and abolitionist.
February 14, 2014 3:29:37 PM PST
As we celebrate Black History Month we take a look back at how one of the Chicago area's earliest settlers helped freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad, a well-known portrait painter and abolitionist.

The home of Sheldon Peck was built 1839 in the suburb now known as Lombard. Until 1996 it was owned and occupied by his direct descendants.

"There were 50 volunteers who worked at different times taking out the 1996-97 era kitchen, the modern bathroom four layers of linoleum on the floor. We worked for three years to restore the house," said Patricia Poskocil, former co-chair, Peck Restoration Team.

Those who worked to restore and preserve it call it a modest home with a radical history.

"He's what we call a radical abolitionist which means he wanted an immediate end to slavery and he wanted racial equality which is not something all abolitionist believed in," said Nicole Louis, Sheldon Peck Homestead Coordinator. "It's in this house that we have records that indicate that a few freedom seekers were hidden before the Civil War and possibly even during."

Peck was a farmer by trade and also a self-taught portrait painter.

"Because of that, that sort of gave him a reason to be out on the road with his wagon and that sort of facilitated his Underground Railroad work," Louis said.

The folk artist's paintings now hang in such prestigious institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago and can command nearly a million dollars at auction. But there is still much to be learned about his work.

Both his son and daughter also were artists. Peck's daughter, Susan, painted a self-portrait with a man believed to be an escaped slave named "Old Charley" who made several trips back to the South lead others to freedom.

"A lot of Underground Railroad history is often told from the perspective of white abolitionists where the vast majority of the work that was done was by blacks either free or enslaved," said Louis. "So we really like to highlight Old Charley and the work that he did here."

The Sheldon Peck Homestead is now owned by the Lombard Historical Society.

On Sunday they will be "myth-busting" the history of the Underground Railroad.

For more information: Sheldon Peck Homestead