Q&A with Manwah Lee, Executive Director, Architreasures
Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project
Location: Chicago, Illinois
The Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project is a network of local leaders, residents, and community stewards from Chicago’s Far South Side and Calumet region working together to highlight the area’s significance in the history of the Underground Railroad. Through the creation of site specific artwork and signage, Architreasures is partnering with the LCRUGRR project to share local stories of resistance and civil disobedience that helped sustain the nation’s freedom movement. The Ton farm belonged to Dutch immigrants Jan and Aagje Ton, and was an important stop in the Underground Railroad on the way to Chicago, Detroit, and Canada.
Founded in 1998, Architreasures activates communities through the power of arts and design. Since it’s founding, Architeasures’ work has produced 150+ projects across 35 Chicago neighborhoods, resulting in tangible, physical improvements in some of our most under-served communities, while promoting civic engagement and social connections among project participants.
More on the LCRUGRR project
Q1: How do you see the arts/culture/humanities as being essential?
Manwah Lee: Cultural work nourishes our hearts, minds, and spirits. The arts and humanities make it possible for us to see and understand ourselves, one another, and the world around us in deeper and more meaningful ways. When we engage with the arts and humanities, we open up a space within our lives to share and reflect on the things that matter to us. They provide frameworks to question and wonder, invitations to imagine and create.
Q2: What is the most important thing people should know about your work?
Manwah Lee: At Architreasures, we take care in considering the process that’s involved in bringing a creative work to life. Oftentimes, the process for developing a project has just as much impact on project partners, a community, and place as the final artwork we set out to produce. And just as the process of designing and creating art requires experimentation and leaps into the unknown, so does the process for engaging and collaborating with communities. I think this aspect always makes our work new and interesting.
Q3: How did you arrive at doing what you do?
Manwah Lee: Currently, Illinois Humanities is supporting Architreasures’ work to design signage and displays for the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, which organizes tours and events that share the history of the Underground Railroad in Chicago’s Riverdale neighborhood. I met Tom Shepherd, the lead organizer of the project, about 3 years ago at a community visioning and planning charrette, where the Underground Railroad was identified as a point of interest and destination opportunity in the neighborhood. The location of the Ton farm safehouse in Riverdale is part of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program, but you wouldn’t know this if you just came up to the site. So we’re developing markers to highlight the area.
There are so many interesting histories associated with Chicago neighborhoods that are little known. I’ve had a lifelong interest piecing together my own history which was hard to identify in mainstream narratives growing up. I believe we have so much more appreciation for where we come from when we learn about our communities’ histories and what our ancestors overcame. So I’m thrilled to be able to learn and share stories about Freedom Seekers and abolitionists who were part of the Underground Railroad on Chicago’s far south side as part of my work with Architreasures.
Q4: Who makes your work possible?
Manwah Lee: An amazing group of volunteers have kept activities of the LCRUGRR project going for more than 20 years! In addition to Tom Shepherd, Dr. Larry McClellan is another long-time leader of the project and the historian who completed all the research on the Ton farm site. Chicago’s Finest Marina currently sits on the former Ton farm location, and we’re lucky the owner Ron Gaines is enthusiastic about featuring artwork and signage about the Underground Railroad on the property. In addition to Illinois Humanities, Architreasures is also grateful to receive support from the Builders Initiative for our work in Riverdale.
Suggested Readings by Manwah Lee:
- Larry’s [McClellan] book The Underground Railroad South of Chicago published by Thorn Creek Press, 2019 discusses the Ton farm site at some length.
- In 2023, Southern Illinois University Press will also be publishing his [Larry McClellan] book Barefoot to Chicago: Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad in Northeastern Illinois.
About The Illinois Humanities Grantee Partner Spotlight
Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Community Grants program partners through our “Grantee Spotlight.” It shines the light on our grantee partner’s work, offering details about the organization and the funded project, as well as a Q&A with a team member at the organization. More: ILHumanities.org/Spotlight
About Illinois Humanities
Illinois Humanities, the Illinois affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a statewide nonprofit organization that activates the humanities through free public programs, grants, and educational opportunities that foster reflection, spark conversation, build community and strengthen civic engagement. We provide free, high-quality humanities experiences throughout Illinois, particularly for communities of color, individuals living on low incomes, counties and towns in rural areas, small arts and cultural organizations, and communities highly impacted by mass incarceration. Founded in 1974, Illinois Humanities is supported by state, federal, and private funds.