Archaeological investigations of freed slave community uncover Black history in southern Illinois

By Elena Schauwecker and Sara Wangler

In the 1840s, Harrison Miller and his son, both newly free men, moved to Pope County, Illinois and purchased a tract of farmland. This was the start of Miller Grove, a community of formerly enslaved individuals that reached a peak residency of 30 to 40 families.

Fast forward over 170 years, where the Miller Grove site, located in the Shawnee National Forest, is being excavated by a group of volunteers and SIU students.

Mark Wagner, an archaeology professor at SIU, is directing a series of investigations with his students at  Miller Grove. He said Miller Grove contained very few written records, so he taught his students other methods of determining information about the residents’ lives.

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“We can look at sorts of animal remains to figure out what their diet was,” Wagner said. “We can look at the different types of dishes and glassware, tools that they had, to get information on their daily lives.”  

These objects, Wagner said, were the first things the formerly enslaved people were able to buy for themselves and represented their new freedom to make choices. By studying the ceramics and the animal remains, students were able to get a sense of who the people were, what was important to them and what kinds of foods and activities they enjoyed. 

Among the artifacts found at Miller Grove were pieces of writing slates, showing the importance of education in the community. Wagner talked about a schoolhouse that was run by Julia Singleton, a former enslaved woman who became a teacher in the community. 

“The Miller Grove community actually had a school where their kids were taught to read and write,” Wagner said. “This is a big deal because if they were in Tennessee they would have been forbidden. So again, you’re getting this sort of information about something they were forbidden to do that they can now do.” 

Mary McCorvie, the heritage program manager at Shawnee National Forest, also talked about the importance of religion in the community as a source of hope and fellowship. 

“Like many African American communities, the church was the center of life,” McCorvie said. “Religious songs were also used to send messages for people traveling on the Underground Railroad.” 

SIU’s field school has approximately a dozen students each year who work on the site alongside community volunteers from the forest service’s archaeology project “Passport in Time.” 

Through excavations, students are seeking to find answers as to why the freed slaves chose to stay in southern Illinois rather than continue traveling north. McCorvie said the most likely reason for this was that Miller Grove may have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, a theory which the students are now exploring.

Though there were plenty of other places where archaeology students could have gotten field experience, Wagner chose Miller Grove because of its cultural and historical significance to the African American community. 

Wagner said Miller Grove is almost nonexistent in southern Illinois history, and the goal of the archaeology department is to bring awareness about this particularly important point in Black history. Two years ago, the field research team held an open house to share their knowledge with the public, and they plan on hosting similar events when it’s safe to do so. 

 Wagner, McCorvie, and some students are also compiling information in hopes of publishing their research in a book in order to further educate the public on the diverse history of Southern Illinois. 

 “These farmsteads, Black or white, left no written history and exist only archaeologically,” McCorvie said. “Now their stories can only be unearthed through investigations. Each story helps recreate the agricultural history of southern Illinois and how each family contributed to the economic growth of southern Illinois.”

Staff reporter Elena Schauwecker can be reached at [email protected]

To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

Staff reporter Sara Wangler can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @sara_Wangler.

To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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