Remember, the side of the tree the moss grows on and the north star is the way to Canada and freedom. These are the words repeated over and over by runaway slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was neither. There were stations, there were conductors, there were brakemen – but there were no rails, no Pullman cars, no coaches and it wasn’t even underground! The UGRR was a secret network of good people opposed to slavery many of whom were Quakers. Slaves, former slaves, free Blacks, and friendly whites all risked their lives to hide, feed, clothe and transport escaping slaves. As many as 40,000 reached Canada and as many as half of those returned to the United States after the Civil War to rejoin their families and friends.
During a visit to Ontario, in Essex County, an area mostly East and South of Detroit, I had the opportunity to learn about the courageous and harrowing journey of thousands of fugitive slaves.
My first stop was at the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum in Maidstone Township. Dr. Bryan E. Walls, direct descendent of John Freeman Walls, was my personal conductor on a journey beginning in Africa, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and traveling through the slave states and ending in freedom in Canada via the UGRR. The completed journey, ending at a log cabin built in 1846 by escaped slave and master carpenter John Freeman Walls is a fascinating tale of an enormous adventure under horrific conditions. And, what makes the tale even more amazing is that John Walls made this trip with his wife to be, Jane Walls.
John was born the same evening as Daniel Walls, son of the Walls plantation owner Eli Walls. Raised together and both nursed by John’s mother, they became fast and loyal friends in spite of the condition of John’s slavery. After Daniel inherited the plantation, and before dying prematurely, Daniel freed John and “willed” his white wife and four children to John Walls. To escape persecution and possible re-enslavement John, Jane and the children ran for Canada. Dr. Bryan Walls has documented this unlikely union and astounding journey in a novelized version entitled The Road That Led To Somewhere. Bryan is a retired dentist and, along with his brother Allen, devotes much of his time to the development and administration of the Historic Site and Museum.
The next stop on my personal journey to learn about the Underground Railroad was the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre located in Amherstburg. It was here that I learned that in 1793 Governor John Graves Simcoe and the first Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada (Ontario) passed Canada’s first anti-slavery law and that in 1833, by Imperial Order all slavery in the British Empire, including Canada, was abolished. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Fugitive Slave Laws were being passed, which allowed for escaped slaves in the northern states to be captured and returned to the slaveholders. This, quite naturally, increased the flight of slaves and former slaves to Canada.
This museum, under the able direction of Elise Harding-Davis, was established to preserve Black Heritage in North America with a focus not only on the Underground Railroad, but also on Canadian Black settlements and the accomplishments of the peoples of African origins who helped shape the Canadian nation. An important part of the Cultural Centre is the Nazrey A.M.E. Church, built in 1848, and now a designated National Historic site.
People who read about slavery and its myriad problems often are not informed that many of those former slaves were people of various skills and ambitions – and a powerful will to survive and become productive.. With freedom many became prosperous, creating successful new businesses and farms. They built homes, schools, churches and communities. With the terrible burden of slavery cast from their shoulders life became “good” for many who made the long journey on the UGRR.
Hopefully, when you visit, you’ll have a few days to stay in this part of Ontario – there is a lot to see and do. Our next stop is the Buxton National Historic Site. Buxton was one of the last stops on the UGRR. The Buxton Site, a Black Settlement which became a self-sufficient community for more than 2000 people, was founded in 1849 by the Rev. William Black. The Museum’s goal here is to preserve artifacts of the settlement with the idea of documenting the history and accomplishments of the original settlers and their descendants. The original schoolhouse is open to the public. The Buxton school, which offered a classical education, surpassed the standards of the other schools in the area.
Buxton is an active Black Canadian village, welcoming guests of all cultures, to visit and learn firsthand about the African American / Canadian American connection.
Of course, there is one spot that you just can’t miss. You simply cannot travel all this way and not visit the famous cultural icon, immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This Historic Site known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin is on land purchased by the well known abolitionist, the Rev. Josiah Henson. “Father Henson,” himself an escaped slave from Kentucky, became a conductor on the UGRR.. He co-founded the British American Institute, a vocational school for UGRR refugees. It was one of the first schools in Canada to emphasize vocational training. The Dawn settlement, made up mostly of Black settlers, grew up around the Institute.
Three historic buildings, two cemeteries and the cabin itself are preserved as a legacy to these Black pioneers of freedom. Josiah Henson published his memoirs in 1849 and Harriet Beecher Stowe used them as a major inspiration for her novel. Hopefully you’ll get to meet Steven Cook while at the Cabin – a supervisor for the St. Clair Parkway Commission. He’ll make sure your visit is a memorable one.
Watch for part two for more things to do when visiting the area.