The Underground Railroad...And Then What Happened?
by Dean June and Ruth Writer ©
"When my feet first touched the Canada shore, I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handsful of it and kissed them and danced around, till, in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman." These were the words of Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave in the 1830's who became the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom.
When dealing with the Underground Railroad, students frequently ask, "Then what happened?" Most presumably know about the road to freedom but few know what happened to the African-Americans once they arrived on Canada's free soil and became African-Canadians.
This Underground Railroad, of course was not underground nor was it a railroad. It was an original system of safe overland routes and safe havens for runaway "slaves." There were established routes from the South to freedom. Many of these routes were through the states of Michigan and New York. The goal in Michigan was either Windsor via the Detroit River or Sarnia via the St. Claire River; in New York it was the Niagara Peninsula or the Champlain Valley. There were "conductors" on this railroad such as Laura Haviland of Michigan, Harriet Tubman of New York and of course Levi Coffin the unofficial president of the underground system, who was responsible for overseeing the escape of at least 3,500 fugitive slaves over a period of thirty years.
Josiah Henson, immortalized in Uncle Tom's Cabin, became the most famous of the fugitives. Born in the late 1700's he was beaten by a master after simply daring to protect his own mother. Later the protective father of twelve, Henson fled to Canada with two of youngest children on his back in a knapsack. He eventually settled near Dresden, Ontario, in the 1840's escaping the brutality of Southern slavery. It was in this new settlement of Dawn that Henson developed his concept of land ownership and education. In 1842 the British American Institute offered basic education with an emphasis on industrial and manual training.
By the late 1840s both a grist mill and saw mill had been added to the community. Amid unproven allegations of fraud, the Dawn settlement collapsed by 1872. At the end of his community leadership, a committee cleared Josiah Henson of any wrongdoing. Even after Henson's death at the age of 94 eleven years later, there were still questions as to whether Henson was indeed THE Uncle Tom. The other possible models for Stowe are lost to history thus the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site is operated as a museum and historic site by the St. Claire Parkway Commission near Dresden, Ontario.
There were many other important communities established by the fugitive slaves. The first black community in Canada was Wilberforce. Named after British reformer and abolitionist William Wilberforce, it was established in the 1820's. Located near London, Ontario, it proved that an all black community was possible even though it failed to prosper. Wilberforce failed not because it was an African Canadian community but because of ineffective management and simply bad luck.
Another black community was Elgin Settlement, also known as the Buxton Mission, hear Windsor, Ontario. Established by Rev. William King, this community helped blacks become self-sufficient and built pride and self- reliance in the members of the community. Rev. King, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, inherited slaves upon the death of his young Louisiana wife. Upon arrival in Ohio, he freed those fifteen slaves and informed them of his decision to relocate in Canada. He then offered to relocate the former slaves to a new settlement in western Canada.
By 1853 the Elgin Settlement had grown to over three hundred people on two hundred acres of land. The settlers owned 128 head of cattle, 15 horses, 30 sheep and 250 hogs. They also had a sawmill, brickyard, gristmill, store, and a potash factory. However, the pride of Elgin was their school, which proved the value the refugee placed on education. Many parents taught their parents after the youngsters returned from their daily lessons. Thus adults learned what they had been denied in the South. The school curriculum had an excellent reputation since the students progressed from the earliest primary levels of education to college entrance in a mere six years. Consequently, white families of the surrounding area and even as far away as Toronto and Buffalo, New York, sent their children to the Buxton Mission School in Elgin. Upon King's death in 1895, he had proven that African-Canadians could establish a successful self-supporting settlement.
An interesting fact of history of the African-Canadians is that many did not live in this new land permanently. A few refugees living in Canada returned to the United States to fight for the union cause in the Civil War. Mary Ann Shadd of the Buxton Mission actively recruited soldiers for the Union army, taught students in the District of Columbia, and eventually became a lawyer in the U.S. capital city after the Civil War.
Many refugees or descendants of the fugitive slaves who dared escape along the Underground Railroad to permanent freedom of Canada stayed in their new homeland after the Civil War. Other African-Canadians were descendants of the first wave of blacks from the United States in 1783, shortly after the American Revolution. These were blacks who fought on the side of the Loyalists and were promised freedom as well as land in British North America by the crown. Some were descendants of the servants who accompanied their Loyalist masters to Nova Scotia. Those who remained in Canada after the Civil War found jobs as waiters, construction workers, carpenters, masons, farmers, teachers, and journalists. They became permanent parts of every day life in Canada.
Many residents left communities like Buxton after 1865 to return to the United States after the northern victory in the Civil War, however. Some left Canada because their settlements had failed, others returned home hoping to find lost family members and friends. Many were simply homesick. For others, it was just simply too cold in Canada. Some returned in part because they desired to return to their former homelands in the United States to help rebuild the destroyed South. Some blacks who had been educated in Canada returned to the south where the recently freed slaves remained illiterate. Their education enabled Canadian blacks to fill the new jobs created in the Reconstructed South.
Like the fugitives who used the night stars of the Big Dipper and the North Star to "follow the drinking gourd," today's students can experience the emotion of freedom by visiting several of the excellent museums and on site locations. In Michigan students can view the accurately reconstructed quarters of slaves at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, or the African-American Museum in Detroit. Once the border reopens, a trip to nearby Canada might be possible to learn about the historically black communities. In nearby Windsor, Ontario, they might visit the Sandwich Baptist Church. The North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre in Amherstburg, Ontario, provides displays of the Underground Railroad and early settlements of blacks in Canada. Many current members of black Canadian communities are descendants of the original freedom seekers of the nineteenth century. In Dresden, Ontario, students may visit "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the home of Josiah Henson and buildings used to house the new migrants from the South. In North Buxton there is the Raleigh Township Centennial museum and in Chatham one can visit the First Baptist Church and John Brown's Meeting House. Finally, in the Windsor area a requisite stop would be the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum on Puce Road. This unique site allows visitors to go back in time to "experience" the history of Africans, African-Americans and African-Canadians. They will view the cabin built by John Freeman Walls and his wife, the former wife of the plantation master. In the Niagara peninsular area there is also historical evidence of several thousand African-Canadians.
The blacks who leaped from the Underground Railroad to Canadian soil experienced the indescribable thrill and excitement of undergoing transformation from marketable chattel to freedmen. Perhaps this experience can be best summed up with the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "A keen observer might have detected Canada in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan.'"
[Dean June was a middle school teacher at Attica Middle School in Attica, New York, and now works with future teachers at SUNY Geneseo. Ruth Writer was a high school teacher in Buchanan, Michigan, taught an introductory course in Canadian Studies at Western Michigan University, and is now a member of the local Board of Education. Both continue to be active in the teaching of Canada. This article was possible through the continued support of the Canadian Studies Centre at Michigan State University and earlier versions appeared on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance website and in Teaching Canada [SUNY Plattsburgh]