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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

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Searching for an abolitionist’s gravesite

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist...................June 12, 2012

The great-great-great grandson of Sycamore abolitionist David West was in the area recently on business and decided to visit the Elmwood Cemetery, where he knows his ancestor is interred.

Harlen Persinger, a photojournalist, resides in Milwaukee and had been to the cemetery in the 1990s researching the family’s history. He also has a farm in Iowa.

Despite the fact that the cemetery’s records before 1910 had been lost, he still was able to find some West family tombstones. He showed me four similar markers in a row that were all so weather-worn the lettering was obliterated except for the last one.

That one has the initials S.L.W. on it and nothing else. He identified that ancestor as Sara Louise West, who had not married and died here in 1903. The crumbling marker next to it he believes is the one for David West, who died in 1890 at age 84.

Harlen Persinger pauses behind the crumbling grave marker he believes belongs to his ancestor David West in Sycamore’s Elmwood Cemetery. The marker at right has the initials S.L.W. which stand for Sara Louise West. (Barry Schrader photo)


The other two he theorizes belong to West’s first and second wives: Sarah, who died in 1849, and Lucinda, who died in 1884. I photographed him with the damaged stone and the one next to it with the initials still visible. They are in a row south of the large Ellwood family tombstones.

He provided some family history and his lineage, so I decided to look further into this fascinating man’s life by perusing files at the Sycamore History Museum and the Joiner History Room.

Much has been published about the Underground Railroad, which harbored runaway slaves before the Civil War, and involved residents of DeKalb County who assisted them in their flight to Canada.

West was one of the better-known abolitionists who provided a hiding place in his barn or corncrib that contained an underground room. He also built a special wagon with a roof and canvas sides that concealed the occupants as he and his son Elias shuttled them to the next station on the road to freedom.

A particularly interesting article, written by Lonny Cain, appeared in the Sycamore Sun-Tribune on Sept. 18, 1968. He was able to interview another descendant, Herbert West, then 81, who recalled stories his father had told many years earlier. His father was just a boy when his grandfather “Deacon” West began helping African-Americans who were fleeing the South for Canada.
It was a dangerous act of courage, as fugitive slave laws at the time enabled federal marshals and Southern sheriffs to pursue runaways for the reward money, which sometimes ran into the thousands of dollars. They didn’t hesitate to use their guns when chasing those suspected of transporting runaways. The law also called for a $1,000 fine for the offense and another $1,000 to be paid to the slave owner for damages. A federal prison sentence also could be imposed. All of this came to an end during the Civil War, when Southern lawmen no longer ventured this far north.

Persinger said he hopes to return again to do more family research, and wishes there could be a monument or marker erected honoring West and other local abolitionists whose acts of heroism enabled many slaves to reach their freedom. If anyone has information that would help him in his quest, he would like to be contacted by email at hlensphotos@wi.rr.com.

P.S. – There will be no column from me for the next four weeks as I am taking a vacation to travel out West to see our California friends.

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The columnist can be reached via email at :

barry815sbcglobal.net

or by snailmail at:

Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115