Hallowed Ground…I could not shake that thought from my mind. Hallowed Ground. We were standing on hallowed ground. The thought brought back memories of my childhood growing up in the church…the old gospel hymn “Standing on Holy Ground,”…the many scriptures that spoke of removing your sandals to stand on holy ground…that day, we indeed were standing on hallowed ground…sacred…revered…not because it had been consecrated and declared as such, but because of what happened there…between strangers from different lives and different worlds.
I found myself once again heading to the Southside of Chicago. This time to attend the dedication of an Illinois State Historical Marker at the site at once was my great-great grandparent’s farm. As I neared the city, I decided to visit the Jan and Aagje Ton Memorial Garden in South Holland. I pulled into the parking lot on the church’s grounds, realizing this would be my first time visiting the garden alone.
After walking through the garden and looking at each flower and plant, knowing they had been purposely planted by my new friend Nadine Harris-Clark, her sister, and other volunteers, I sat quietly on the bench. Hallowed ground. It was a beautiful early autumn day. Not a cloud in the sky. A gentle and somewhat chilly breeze rustled the leaves of the trees above me. As my eyes took in the memorial, a sound came to my ears from off in the distance…the sound of a train whistle…I strained to listen. I could almost hear the clap-clap-clap of the steel wheels passing along the tracks…hallowed ground.
Soon the church bells tolling at noon broke me out of my trance. As the 12th toll echoed across the grounds, I headed to my car. It was time to drive the two miles to Chicago’s Finest Marina on the grounds of what was the Ton Farm over 100 years ago.
The Dedication – Ton Farm
I found myself feeling somewhat anxious, somewhat curious, and somewhat nervous. When we had last visited the farm site, the gates had been locked, and we could not explore the area along the river. Today would be different. Today the gates would be open.
After saying hello to Nadine, Tom, Larry, and Robin, I wandered off. I wanted to take it all in before the dedication ceremony. I wanted to walk the grounds alone. I wanted to stand along the river. I have always loved rivers. Something about watching the water change and dance in the light as it moves past me, never to be the same again. I wondered how many times Jan and Aagje stood here and watched the river. How often did my great-grandpa George fish in the river or play in its waters with his siblings? I could hear the peals of laughter and delight as George splashed one of his sisters in the cool waters.
As I walked through the grass to where the house would have been located, the emotions came alive. It was here freedom seekers would come, seeking safety, protection, food, warmth, and transportation for the next leg of their long journey. It was here Jan and Aagje would risk fines, jail time, or worse.
I could feel it. Hallowed Ground. Sacred ground. Revered ground.
Fear was the first thing I felt. The freedom seekers had been traveling for days or weeks. Every. Single. Moment. In fear of discovery and being returned to the very life of slavery they were trying to escape. Frightened. Traveling at night, hiding in the shadows. While they had been told this was a safe haven to rest, was it? Who were these white people anyway? They could turn them in for a handsome reward, probably more than they made on this small farm in a month or many months.
Fear. Jan and Aagje. Nervous to be discovered. Worried law enforcement from Chicago would discover their part in this flight for freedom. Anxious as they hid their precious cargo in their wagons and headed toward Indiana. Risk. Would they be deported back to Holland? Fear. Different, but just as palpable.
Fear gave way to trust. As the Tons bustled into their now familiar routine of hiding the freedom seekers in their barn, preparing food, providing water, and unfolding blankets. Hushed tones of conversation between them. From whence had they come? Missouri? Mississippi? Kentucky? Questions about the road ahead. Stories of the dunes they would cross on their way around the great lake. Trust that these kind folks would give them passage. Trust in a safe place to lay their heads and rest, if only for a few hours.
Fear gave way to trust. This group of frightened travelers was seeking freedom. The quiet knock on the door was not the authorities or someone trying to rob or harm them. As their story unfolded, fear eroded, and trust was built. Always wary and cautious but confident in their actions.
Hope. As they climbed into the wagon and hid beneath the hay. Hope – freedom lay ahead. Hope – a few more days of travel. A new life. They would make it safely. They could send for others. Hope. Building a life. Free. They would remember the past and in remembering, give thanks for the freedom that would now be theirs. A future free from the oppression of slavery.
Jan and Aagje felt hope. Hope for the future and the lives they were building in this country. Scarcely a decade has passed since they left the only life they had ever known in 1849. Jan a young man of 23, Aagje a girl of only 14. Married in 1853 and building a life together on a small farm. Their growing family. Hope for the future. Hope for a life free to practice their religion and worship their god, free from persecution.
Hallowed ground, not by consecration but by the deeds performed in this space.
Do this in remembrance of them
The unveiling ceremony dedicated this land. Dignitaries spoke. Beautiful songs were raised. On behalf of Jan and Aagje, I was honored to be a part of it. I never knew them, but my heart tells me they would have been “embarrassed for all the fuss.” They were just doing what they knew to be right in their hearts for other men, women, and children traveling this life.
The marker will serve as a reminder of what happened there. To those who visit, I encourage you to walk the grounds with a sense of remembrance. Feel the emotions. Connect with the people who made this ground hallowed…those seeking freedom…and those lending a helping hand toward that freedom.
Hallowed ground, indeed!
In researching the concept of hallowed ground for this post, I came across Standing on Hallowed Ground: Practicing the Morality of Remembrance by Dr. Maulana Karenga. His words describe hallowed grounds in a way that moved me. Please click through and read it!