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Sweeping The Underground Railroad For History's Sake

Sweeping is a universally human activity. I began thinking about the act of sweeping a few years ago when I was in Indonesia. One day I saw a...

Sweeping is a universally human activity. I began thinking about the act of sweeping a few years ago when I was in Indonesia. One day I saw a couple working on a farm. They had set rice out to dry, and were busy sweeping it into piles. Although I know almost nothing about farming, and less about growing rice, something in that act was familiar. I began to think about ways in which simple everyday labors connect us, and connect us throughout history. Sweeping is something we all do because it’s an act of cleaning and caring for our spaces. I see it as a way to honor or pay homage to the past, to mark a space, without leaving a permanent mark, and so I’m sweeping across Will County, Illinois, to do just that.

I have begun to research the stories that are part of the places where I live, and I am looking for ways to interact with those stories in new ways. I was quite surprised to find out the Underground Railroad was active in my "backyard." The first I heard of this was just a few years ago, when Blanchard Hall, a building at Wheaton College very near Will County, was verified as an Underground Railroad “stop.”

I wanted to know more about this history, and how extensive it was, and why I hadn’t heard about it before. The Des Plains River, which runs through the middle of my county, is suspected to be a major "route" for freedom seeking slaves. Hickory Creek is also suspected to be a marker for freedom seekers making their way to Crete on foot. Several known and suspected abolitionists lived in the area, including an active group of free African-Americans.

There is the common metaphor of sweeping things under the rug, which has negative connotations. That metaphor leads me (and hopefully others) to ask painful questions: Have we swept our history "under the rug?"

Will County today is enjoying an economic boom. According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, it’s one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. At the same time, it is clear that this economic development does not affect everyone equally. A study published by Warehouse Workers for Justice points out that the economic growth in the county is reliant on warehouse workers in the logistics industries, and that they hire an inordinate number of low-wage and temporary workers.

This shows up particularly in the difference in lifestyle in largely African-American areas of the county, like inner city Joliet, and the more suburban areas of the county, like New Lennox. By extension, we can see these same differences all across the United States. Given these differences, and the history of the county, I am asking myself if I have any responsibility towards improving race relations in my community.

The Sweep Project is a site-specific performance artwork that highlights the history of the Underground Railroad in Will County, Illinois, and challenges people to consider both their relationship to that history and their role in building a more just and equitable society today.

The performance is done by sweeping, or more precisely sweeping while walking, between known and suspected Underground Railroad “stops” across the county, creating a 28.5 mile trail. Sometimes I will be performing the sweep alone, but at other times members of the community are welcomed to join in, either by sweeping themselves or just walking with the group. The performance gives an opportunity for members of the community to encounter the history of the county in a new, physical and visceral way, as well as space and time to share their stories with one another, and consider how race relations continue to shape our community. There is no special “program” or “lecture” as part of the Sweep Project. It is more like a pilgrimage. The hope is that the journey itself can be transformative.

I am documenting the Sweep Project, in many ways: through photography, by making special cyanotype prints using objects collected from the walks, and hopefully with a full-length documentary movie. It is my goal to make this project as accessible to as many people as possible, because it is really more than just a story about the history and race relations of a small county in Illinois; it is a story about the history and race relations of the United States. If you’d like to be a part of what we’re doing, consider supporting our Kickstarter campaign; or, if you’re in Illinois, consider walking with us.

This project is part of GOOD's Saturday series Push For Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

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