Miller Grove - Passport in Time

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Reconstructing the History and Lifeways of Miller Grove, a Freed-Slave African-American Community

Shawnee National Forest, Illinois, 1999
by Elizabeth L. Fuller, FS Archaeologist

Study of the Miller Grove Community began two years ago with help from a grant from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Cooperative Program. Each year two students from Tennessee State University come for the summer to help us conduct historical and archaeological research on African-American sites on the forest. This was the first year the Shawnee NF has conducted a PIT project at the Miller Grove Community. A total of 19 volunteers ranging in age from 9 to 85 came to help. Many were from Illinois, but some came from as far as Maryland, Texas, and South Carolina. We had teachers, students, government employees, retirees, and an Underground Railroad researcher.

The excavations took place at the farmstead of William Riley Williams, a free-born African-American from Tennessee who moved to Illinois in 1851 because of Tennessee’s restrictive laws for blacks during that period. He bought land near other African-American farmers who had recently arrived from Tennessee, and a community was formed. During the excavation in and around the remains of the home, we found buttons, hand-painted and sponge-decorated ceramics, glass, doll parts, a shoe sole, tableware, table scraps, wagon parts, and lots and lots of nails. We uncovered the fireplace and what we believe was a “hidey hole,” a place where the residents would have kept their most precious items.

As part of the program, we provided evening lectures by professor of Black American Studies Dr. Nancy Dawson from Southern Illinois University. She spoke about the cultural continuity that has carried over from Africa to America.
Journal Entries

June 14, 1999, Day One. Today we drove to our digging site Miller Grove. We had to walk a half a mile to get there. We worked 10 a.m.–3 p.m. digging in grids. Some things I found were nails, buttons, brick, glass, mortar, and one hinge. —Joey Weldon, age 10

June 16, 1999. The people of Miller Grove were freed slaves. They were mostly farmers and sometimes mined for coal. Each day so far there is a toad in the same unit. Also we went out for dinner and listened to a lecture about African culture at Southern Illinois University. —Kevin Weldon, age 10
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