Canada's role in the Underground Railroad is interesting, particularly to me, because I have discovered that members of my own family made it from southern Delaware to Canada. My great-grandfather, who escaped in 1856, stayed a few years in Canada, as Jacob Blockson, who is mentioned in William Still's book, which was the first written by leading member of the Underground Railroad. When I went to Canada last summer and was talking to the Walls, who are the descendants of an escapee who arrived in Canada in 1846, thy spoke of people who remembered my relatives.
Some of my relatives stayed in Canada; others came back to the united states. Canada was not the promised land that many of our ancestors may have expected after reading Or hearing of Benjamin Lundy's report of his 1832 visit. Canada was cold. Canada had prejudice during' those days--as Mary Ann Shadd noted in some of her articles that appeared in The Provincial Freeman. in Canada, too, there was competition for jobs--and an Clement Of segregation. It was not the promised land that most people bragged about. Charles Blockson
The Upper Canada Abolition Act of 1793, which placed limited constraints on existing slavery and which established that any slave newly entering the province, whether with his or her master or in flight from bondage, would be deemed legally free, was enacted the same year the U.S. Congress passed its first Fugitive Slave Law. The Canadian news quickly spread south to the United States, and by the time the first black national convention in the United States met in 1830, Canada was well-known as a refuge for escapees. Convention delegates approved of migration there even as they decisively rejected a homeland in Liberia.
Migration to Canada accelerated in the 1830s as restraints on free black existence in America were intensified and as Benjamin Lundy's The Genius of Universal Emancipation reported on the greater racial equality north of the border. (During Lundy's Ontario, Canada, visit of 1832, he found more than 300 African Americans living in Amherstburg; "a considerable settlement" at Chatham; several hundred souls near London; and distinct black districts at Woolrich and Oro Township.)
All this history and more are explored at the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre in Amherstburg. Although the museum covers black history from Africa to the present, its focus is the Underground Railroad and the black settlements of southwestern Ontario. Slave sale bills, maps of fugitive routes, contemporaneous newspaper accounts of black settlements, a log cabin circa 1855, a small genealogical file and black-oriented videotapes offer visitors a window onto a world with which most North Americans, on both sides of the border, are unfamiliar.
While many free blacks moved north, the most dramatic migration to Canada involved those fleeing slavery--and even today, the most emotionally compelling Canadian sites tied to 19th-century African Americans interpret the story of the flight to freedom. In 1830, Josiah Henson loaded his family into a small boat and crossed the Ohio River, leaving Kentucky and bondage behind and setting out on the frightening road of a freedom still in jeopardy from slave catchers. For two weeks the family traveled by night and hid by day, before finally reaching a northern sanctuary.
Once in Canada, Henson settled down to providing for his family, though much of his time was devoted to assisting fugitives. Toward this end, in 1841 Henson and other former slaves and white abolitionists purchased 200 acres of land near Dresden, Ontario. Here they established an agricultural and manual labor training school for freedmen and fugitives, as the nucleus of Dawn, a black cooperative settlement. Soon a saw and grist mill, a brickyard and a church were erected, and approximately 500 souls settled in an expanding black community. Six years later, Henson stepped onto the world's stage in a small way with the publication of his biography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada.
Three years later, with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Henson's role on that stage would assume larger proportions, and the man (identified in Stowe's source notes as the model for the novel's protagonist) would be forever diminished, subsumed within the identity of Uncle Tom. While this identity conferred benefits--it was, for example, certainly the basis of his visit to Britain, during which he met with Queen Victoria--it made it all the harder to hide when the Dawn community collapsed amid scandal and charges of fraud.
Today, visitors to the old Dawn settlement will find the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. The house in which Henson Site. The cemetery in which he is buried, the community-erected church in which he preached, the building in which fugitive slaves first were housed upon their arrival at Dawn, an agricultural building complete with period implements, some of the original school buildings, a Henson memorial plaque, and a museum with modest holdings (period furnishings, slave handcuffs and chains, and a first edition of Henson's 1849 autobiography) interpret the man and the all-black community that provided refuge to fugitives from slavery. Visitors here get an added bonus: The site is run by Henson's great-great-grand-daughter, who is proud to tell the story of her family's roots.
Even as the Dawn colony sank into acrimony and dispute, another black settlement was demonstrating that African-American cooperative colonies could prosper--albeit at the initial expense, at least in this particular case, of paternalistic white leadership. William King arrived in Canada in 1846 as a reverend, a widower and an abolitionist with a past: Years earlier, as an Irish immigrant to America, he had married into a slave-owning Louisiana family and had himself purchased a slave.
Shortly after his arrival in Canada, King was working with fugitive slaves. Incontinently inheriting human chattel upon the death of his father-in-law, King resolved to free them and establish them and other black refugees on a Canadian colony in Buxton, near Chatham, Ontario.
His proposal was not welcomed by many local residents. The Chatham journal asked whether "the intelligent, honest and industrious citizens of any township in Canada would submit to having 1,000 coloured paupers introduced into their community, to have the whole township government controlled and its officers selected by them, to have their sons and daughters educated under the same roof with a Black man for a teacher. ... Let Walpole Island be purchased from or an exchange made with the Indians, and let the African be as nearly by himself as possible."
Despite these reservations, King persevered. Among the new Elgin Settlement's first colonists were the various slaves King had acquired through or in connection with his first marriage, two of whom went on to fight in the Union ranks during the Civil War. One reason that the settlement succeeded in attracting colonists was the education it offered. Henry Johnston enrolled his son in King's school, explaining that while he had "left the States for Canada for rights, freedom, and liberty, I came to Buxton to educate my children." (Three generations of Johnstons still can be found in the Buxton area.) This was no mere mechanical and agricultural trade school. Latin and Greek prepared the students for college, and all of the school's first graduating class went on to higher education.
Today, North Buxton, as the area of the old Elgin Settlement is now known, is a middle-class black community. Its residents, many the descendants of the original colonists, justifiably take pride in their heritage, much of which can be traced at the Raleigh Township Centennial Museum. Here, visitors view a slide presentation outlining the history of the Elgin community, artifacts and diaries of the colonists, artifacts and the papers of King, census data from 1851, and family trees that trace yet another achievement of the diaspora. Part of the museum complex is the adjacent old Second School (1861) and the old settlement cemetery (1857). Nearby are the British Methodist Episcopal Church (1855) and the First Baptist Church (1883), which testify to the 19th-century growth of a black community in Canada.
While North Buxton today retains many remnants of its black past, old South Buxton has few. One of its most prominent is St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. Still hanging in the church's steeple is a bell inscribed "Presented to the Rev. William King by the coloured inhabitants of Pittsburgh." The 500-pound bell was originally placed in King's garden and, in accordance with the request of its black donors, was rung at dawn and dusk to remind the Elgin brethren of their liberty. Today, access to the bell is difficult, necessitating a climb up a ladder that is not likely to encourage repeat visits.
Not all who fled north, however, settled into communities overseen by white philanthropists. In 1846, the escaped North Carolinian slave John Freeman Walls and his wife Jane King Walls constructed a log cabin as members of the Puce River settlement, which eventually embraced almost 100 families. The Walls' cabin served as an Underground Railroad terminus and as the first meeting place of the Puce Baptist Church. Following the Civil War, many of the settlement's former slaves returned to the United States, but Walls and his wife stayed on in Canada.
Today, the descendants of John and jane Walls operate the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum. The museum is housed in the restored log cabin built in 1846, on whose walls one can still see inscribed the initials "J.W." These Walls have voices, which they use to speak about the slave trade, tracing the diaspora's experience from Africa to Canada. A pathway has been carved through the site's 22 acres and is used to simulate a slave's journey north. Tape recordings of barking dogs and burbling streams add an element of verisimilitude to the journey, which concludes with the arrival at the 1846 cabin in which John and jane Walls found freedom and built a future for themselves and their descendants. Further information on the struggles of the founding Walls can be found in Bryan Walls' book, The Road That Led Somewhere.
However many African Americans fled north to build their future, the greater number remained behind--either in shackles or in active opposition to slavery. And Ontario tells their story, as well. In May of 1858, John Brown--soon to be famous for his raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry--and various associates, white and black, arrived in Chatham to hold a convention to form a government in exile and lay the foundation for an insurrection leading to the establishment of a revolutionary regime on liberated territory in the United States. Chatham, a principal terminus of the Underground Railroad, held the promise of safety, as fully one-third of the community was black and many of its members were fugitive slaves.
In the guise of a fraternal meeting, 35 African Americans and 12 whites gathered at the First Baptist Church, which had been constructed in 1841 by fugitive slaves. Among those present were Martin Delany, the 19th century's leading black nationalist and a close colleague of Frederick Douglass; the Rev. W.C. Monroe, a black minister from Detroit, who was elected chairman of the gathering; John Henry Kagi, who was elected secretary of war; Brown's sons, Owen and John (the former of whom would survive the raid on Harpers Ferry and die in California in 1891); Isaac Shadd and the husbands of Julia and Mary Ann Shadd; and Osborne Perry Anderson, who would escape Harpers Ferry and write about the raid in Mary Ann Shadd's newspaper, The Provincial Freeman.
Today, outside the First Baptist Church, a John Brown Meeting House Historical Marker commemorates the final gathering place of the conspirators. Inside the church is the table around which Brown, Delany, Kagi and others plotted to overthrow slave rule in the United States. Note: Excepting church services, access to the church interior and the table is by appointment; interested visitors should contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Windsor, Essex County and Pelee Island, (800) 265-3633.
One more local church figures prominently in Canada's black heritage. In 1851-a year after the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act -- runaway African Americans in Windsor erected the Sandwich First Baptist Church, not far from the Detroit River's edge that defined their security. Today's visitors see some of the original hand-formed bricks that composed the exterior of the church, the original cellar (which provided refuge for recently arrived runaways), the church's original woodwork, a plaque naming the church officers of the time, and the foundation stone.
More than the history of African-American migration, however, will draw you north, particularly in the spring and autumn. Songbirds, monarchs and Canadian geese all make a stop in Essex County during their migrations. In mid-May, the trees of Point Pelee National Park fill with songbirds, while in the fall, monarch butterflies, Canadian geese and hawks fill the sky. Best bets for where to catch a sight of them? Try the Holiday Beach Conservation Area and Jack Miner's Bird Sanctuary. Thank heavens for the North Star!