Pembroke Township comprises 52 square miles of rural land about 10 miles southeast of the city of Kankakee. Its eastern edge borders the state of Indiana, while it lies between the Kankakee River to the north and the Iroquois River to the south.

This remarkable landscape has been spared many of the human-induced impacts that come with urban development. The township contains 1,300 acres of high-quality sand savanna—the most important assemblage of this type of habitat in Illinois. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared that the Pembroke Savannas represent the “most significant concentration of black-oak savannas in the Midwest.” Consequently, a number of these savannas are now fully protected as Illinois Nature Preserves, or Illinois Land and Water Reserves.

Sand Dunes and Fire

The unique Pembroke Savannas were created in the last Ice Age. They resulted from raging glacial meltwaters that flooded northeastern Illinois as successive stages of the Pleistocene glaciers liquefied and retreated to the north, leaving glacial lakes in their wake. As these lakes evaporated, they left deposits of fine sediments—mostly sands that were pushed by prevailing winds into dunes. Ultimately, the dunes hosted a unique aggregation of plants and animals that thrived in sandy, well-drained soils.

Because a sand substrate is so different from the typical “organic” prairie soil, the habitats as well as plants and animals that occur in savannas can be strikingly different compared to those in the surrounding prairies. Up to 22 rare plant species grow in these savannas, including the largest Illinois population of the endangered orange-fringed orchid. The Pembroke Savannas are also the only known location in the state of the yellow false indigo. Distinct reptile and amphibian species such as the western glass lizard and six-lined racerunner reside in this area, and the plains pocket gopher is a mammal that plays a key role in maintaining the health of sandy soils in Pembroke Township.

Sand savannas are a transition community between prairies and forests. They are maintained by fires on the landscape. The presettlement dune and swale landscape that was typical of Pembroke Township provided natural firebreaks that retarded the reach and frequency of prairie fires, allowing oak trees to mature while still burning much of the understory brush. Thus, a kind of open forest with scattered trees or “savanna” was created. Sand savannas are characterized by the presence of black and white oaks with an understory that can include porcupine grass, June grass, Pennsylvania sedge, little bluestem, and scores of wildflowers.

Over the centuries, the Pembroke Savannas experienced occasional wildfires from both natural and human causes. Lightning strikes, the purposeful setting of fires by Native Americans to attract bison in spring and drive them to hunters in fall, and accidental fires by subsequent settlers all contributed to maintaining the integrity of the savannas that persist to this day.

A Unique Human History, Too

Until the Civil War, Pembroke Township remained sparsely populated by Potawatomi and white fur traders like Gurdon S. Hubbard. Hubbard’s Trace, the trading route linking Fort Dearborn in Chicago to Vincennes, Indiana, which Hubbard blazed in the early 19th century, passed though Pembroke Township. Taverns and inns sprung up along the route to provide food and rest for travelers. One such tavern was named “Pembroke,” and it became the namesake of the township in which it was built.

This lightly populated and isolated corner of the state began to attract runaway slaves as well as those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Fugitive Joseph “Pap” Tetter and his family of 18 children made their exodus to Pembroke from North Carolina sometime in 1861 or 1862. This sparsely settled and isolated landscape may have pro-vided a sense of security
to the Tetter clan in the hostile and racist climate
of that age.

Tetter acquired 42 acres in what would become the community of Hopkins Park. He platted his land, subdivided it, and ultimately sold plots to other settlers. Revenues from the land sales, as well as from other business ventures, were used to support the escape of fugitive slaves who traveled the Underground Railroad network immortalized by the likes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Hopkins Park actually became a terminal of the Underground Railroad.

Hopkins Park grew into a rare example of a multiracial rural community with a few Potawatomi “resisters” who refused to join their tribesmen in exile west of the Mississippi River, African-American immigrants from the south, and white settlers. In 1868, a new railroad line was routed through Hopkins Park, which contributed for a while to the community’s success.

The area also spawned a university. In 1894, Walter Thomas Mills of Houston, Texas, bought land in the area and founded Mills University. The institution was designed to be self-supporting. Students took classes in the mornings, and in the afternoons, worked in the university’s shops and farm. Mills University sported classrooms, a cafeteria, and two dormitories. However, it was forced to close after 2 years due to financial problems.

A second wave of African-American immigration took place during the Great Depression. Lack of employment and inadequate or unavailable housing brought more Chicago blacks to the refuge of Pembroke Township to try their hands at agriculture.

Bringing Light and Recognition

The second half of the 20th century saw a steady stagnation of the quality of life for the human inhabitants of the Pembroke Savannas. As paved roads, electrification, public transportation, and other amenities networked many of the state’s rural areas to urban centers, Pembroke Township languished in a relatively isolated and undeveloped state.

A New York Times article in 2002 noted that Pembroke Township was statistically one of the poorest areas in the entire country. Ninety-eight percent of its schoolchildren were so poor that they qualified for free lunches. While there were several churches and liquor stores in the township, there was no bank, supermarket, barbershop, pharmacy, gas station, or police force. One part-time physician provided medical care two afternoons per week. The article stated there were few paved roads and no buses or trains running through Pembroke.

Oprah Winfrey told an audience that 55% of Pembroke’s residents lived below the poverty level with 44% without running water. Jon Dyson, a local minister, remarked that “third-world conditions” exist here.

Team Illinois

Perhaps as a result of public scrutiny created by national media exposure, a new day seems to be dawning for Pembroke Town-ship. Local grassroots initiatives, along with state coordination and sponsorships, are breathing new life into this forgotten cor-ner of Illinois.

Governor Rod Blagojevich has come to the aid of Pembroke Township and other poverty-stricken areas of the state. In 2003, he launched Team Illinois, an initiative to coordinate the state’s resources to provide its most needy communities with infrastructure for social services and economic development.

Blagojevich proclaimed, “We developed Team Illinois because as a society we can no longer turn our backs on communities like Pembroke. We can no longer pretend that places like Pembroke don’t exist.…” Consequently, state officials descended upon the township to meet with local citizens and stakeholders to develop public–private partnerships to address Pembroke’s socioeconomic challenges. Improvements began almost immediately.

The Illinois Department of Transportation provided road repairs and maintenance, para-transit vehicles, road signs, and trench digging. The Illinois Department of Human Services created a new Technology Learning Center at Pembroke Township Hall and organized partnerships to construct affordable housing. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency removed tire dumps and cleaned these sites, and the Illinois Department of Public Health conducted health screenings and immunized children. Finally, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development formed a consortium of employers in the Kankakee area to provide training and jobs for Pembroke residents.

A Renaissance on the Sands

Basic socioeconomic developments are not the only positive changes in Pembroke Township. Unique cultural and educational opportunities are also springing up. The Pembroke Rodeo hosts Latting Rodeo Production events that feature African-American competitors; and the township is home to the annual Marcus Garvey Fest, which honors a prominent Jamaican journalist and publisher who became a pioneer in civil rights and the African Nationalist movement. The fest is an all-day, all-night happening with music, poetry, dance, and speeches on African history and related topics.

More permanent cultural institutions include a summer archaeological field school located on a 62-acre wooded savanna. The school is an archaeological laboratory for high school and college students, focusing enrollment on African Americans with math and science skills. It is a collaboration among the African Scientific Research Institute, Pembroke School District 259, University of Illinois, The Field Museum, and Nazarene Olivet University in Kankakee.

Iyabo Farms, owned and operated by the Cole family, is a certified organic enterprise that grows produce in conjunction with the Pembroke Farmers Cooperative. Produce is marketed at the Austin Farmers Market in west Chicago as well as restaurants and health food stores. Iyabo Farms was featured in the May 2005 issue of Organic Style magazine.

Another Pembroke Township cutting-edge enterprise is the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living. The center is dedicated to teaching citizens how to wean themselves from dependence on fossil fuels and reduce overall energy consumption.

Renowned for Its Natural Beauty, Now Recognized for Its Inspiring Human Heritage

After decades of inattention, there seems to be a good moon on the rise over Pembroke Township. Its unique black-oak savannas as well as its human inhabitants are finally receiving the care that has been long overdue and in precious little supply. Citizens continue to partner with business, industry, educational institutions, and state agencies to uplift themselves. At the same time, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois and Indiana Departments of Natural Resources, and Friends of the Kankakee, in cooperation with private landowners, have dedicated hundreds of acres of oak savannas, pin-oak flatwoods, sand forests, and sand prairies as Illinois Nature Preserves and Illinois Land and Water Reserves (see pages 32–34), which will sustain these pristine remnants of the Greater Kankakee Sands ecosystem in the future.

No longer is Pembroke Township a lost and neglected corner of the Kankakee Sands. Its rich and distinctive natural resources and its inspiring human history of perseverance and triumph against great odds is a heritage that we all should honor and share, generation after generation.

Charles Warwick is publications coordinator for the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign.