HM - Jan. 2014 - Storer

Classroom Applications

 
The Underground Railroad and Black History Beyond our Border
Tina Storer and Joshua Tataran
Center for Canadian-American Studies
Western Washington University

February is Black History Month and an important time to make connections to Canada in classrooms. As Martin Luther King once said, “Over and above any kinship of U.S. citizens and Canadians as North Americans, there is a singular historical relationship between American Negroes and Canadians. Canada is not merely a neighbor to Negroes….Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star….The freedom road links us together.  Heaven was the word for Canada and the Negro sang of the hope that his escape on the Underground Railroad would carry him there.”(Conscience for Change, published by CBC Learning Systems, 1967 Massey Lectures)
Canada and its important role in the desire and quest for freedom are vital but often overlooked considerations when teaching about the Underground Railroad.  Students taking armchair journeys on the UGRR ought to know that Canada was more than just one of the possible final destinations; it was, in fact, the UGRR “home office” for seventeen years.  History, as well as modern sources such the film Twelve Years a Slave, tells us that Canada—and Canadians—not only impacted the success of the Underground Railroad but also inspired slaves to seek freedom. Those who crossed the border for safety and even settled in Canada had experiences that are noteworthy.  Let’s look past the 49th Parallel now to consider just a few of the many stories worth telling.
As most know, between 1440 to the late 1800s, millions of black Africans were captured and sent by ship under primitive conditions to the New World where they were sold as slaves to work on sugar and other crop plantations. Only 15 million survived the journey and, because of the harsh living conditions and cruelty they faced in their new homeland, many more died from disease and exhaustion after arriving.  It is admittedly not as straightforward to discuss the status of slavery in Canada during the same period since its own nation-building and governance changed hands between the French and the British, but certainly Louis XIV of France allowed and even encouraged slavery to further establish the colony of New France. Since fur-trading was the key economic support in the region, alliances with Aboriginal peoples was more practical than importing slaves. Eventually, the number of slaves in other parts of Canada increased due to the slave trade and migrations of Loyalists who brought their slaves with them from the United States following the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; however, the reliance on and acceptance of slave labor in Canada never approached the levels seen in the United States. This was primarily because, in Canada, there was no agricultural/economic basis for mass labor and, perhaps more relevant, was the fact that many Canadians felt that slavery was unethical and unjust—like so many in the northern United States.  In fact, when Upper Canada (now known as Ontario) convened its first legislature in 1793, a law prohibiting the introduction of more slaves was passed that also allowed for the gradual emancipation of slaves born after that date. Britain took note and its Parliament officially abolished the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in 1834. These laws allowed blacks to live as free citizens in Canada and gave hope to slaves in the south for freedom. Canada became a symbol of hope. Slaves sang of Canada as “Canaan” in their spirituals and marked this land of freedom as the “North Star” on quilts that mapped routes to the “Promised Land”.
Underground Railroad Routes
Underground Railroad Routes

The most intriguing feature of the Underground Railroad was its lack of formal organization. It was a loosely constructed network of escape routes that originated in the southern United States, wound its way to the less-restricted North and eventually stretched to Canada. First established by sympathetic abolitionists who hid and guided freedom seekers as early as the 1500s, the UGRR reached its “passenger” peak between 1830 and 1865.  The system’s success ultimately relied on the cooperation and trust among various religious and ethnic groups who moved former slaves and bondsmen toward the North Star through their highly secretive network. Canada was not merely an end-goal since Canadians also worked steadfastly among them. The government supported this effort and in 1833, for example, Upper Canada famously refused to extradite two fugitive slaves: Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who were the principals of a mob rescue in Detroit and wanted back in the United States.   Also, in 1838, prompted by the case of Jesse Happy, a fugitive slave who had escaped to Canada, the British government concluded that a slave extradition request from the United States must show evidence that the person committed a crime that was recognized in Canada as such. Slavery, and therefore escape, was not recognized. These are just a few examples of the many decisive actions that Canada and Canadians took as freedom fighters.
Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman


Mary Ann Shadd
Mary Ann Shadd


Alexander RossAlexander Ross
Many of the UGRR’s great conductors were either Canadian themselves or had significant ties to Canada. Notable conductors included former slaves who had found freedom on the UGRR, as well as whites and free blacks who felt passionately about the cause. Of the escaped slaves who settled in Canada at least temporarily, Harriet Tubman continues to be the most well-known. After her escape, she vowed to help others as well and risked her life numerous times by crossing the border to conduct newly-escaped slaves to freedom.  Despite Tubman’s worldwide renown, few realize that her center of operations was located in St. Catharines, Ontario for 17 years. From there, Tubman could openly utilize Canada’s resources and Canadians’ support to make the lives of African- Americans better.
Mary Ann Shadd is well known in Canada but less so in the United States. She was a free black when she traveled to Windsor, Ontario and set up shop to help educate and integrate blacks in Canada. Her role was highly controversial at the time, but her perseverance led to great accomplishment. She also practiced law and journalism along with her teaching and abolitionist activities. She published a newspaper called “The Provincial Freeman” and became the first female publisher in Canada and the first black female publisher in North America. In 1840, after her husband died, she returned to the northern United States and established a school for black children. She remained a dedicated educator for the rest of her life.

Alexander Ross, a doctor, made it his mission to help slaves escape to Canada, his home country. Using bird-watching as a cover, he would travel to the United States to divulge information to runaways about which routes to take as well as provide supplies such as food, weapons, and a compass for the journey. He well represents the impressive number of heroes who served the UGRR without fear for personal safety. One can only guess at how many people he helped.

Due to its cloak of secrecy, it is impossible to accurately report on numbers relating to the Underground Railroad, but historians believe that some 40,000 freedom seekers made it to Canada. Of course, a substantial black population of free citizens established itself in Canada, most significantly in Upper Canada (Southwestern Ontario). Several black settlements were established to accommodate the new population. The Dawn Settlement, founded by Josiah Henson, who is believed to be the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character, Uncle Tom, in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is one of the most well-known. After escaping slavery, Henson settled near Dresden, Ontario where he helped other escaped slaves learn about land ownership and the importance of education. The Dawn Settlement, and others like it, made it easier for escaped slaves to prepare for their new lives outside of slavery. More than mere re-settlement camps, these communities were supported in their development by Canada.  Of course, with improved civil rights following the Civil War, many former slaves, like Mary Ann Shadd, returned to the post bellum United States to reconnect with family.

Many abolitionist groups were also founded, such as the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada and the Refugee Slaves’ Friend Society, as the population of escaped slaves grew in Canada. Some of these groups were religion-based, including the British Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada, which actually united churches on both sides of the border in their anti-slavery cause.

Abolitionists in Canada were vocal across the continent in their attempts to aid the Underground Railroad and to end slavery in the United States altogether. Multiple newspapers and autobiographies were published in Canada because of the greater acceptance of anti-slavery material there, as compared to the United States These publications helped draw worldwide attention to the horrors of slavery. Some Canadians (white, free black, and escaped slaves) joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Some joined colored regiments, such as the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment. All were prepared to sacrifice their lives so that others could be free. Most probably did.
 
Dawn Settlement
Dawn Settlement

 

54th Massachusetts Regiment
54th Massachusetts Regiment
 
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to share stories like these from beyond our border and to acknowledge Canada’s role in this important period of North American history. Our northern neighbor not only provided a safe destination for escaped slaves, but individual Canadians advocated against slavery and became personally involved in helping slaves find safe passage to Canada. Imagine how different things might have been had Canada, and Canadians, ignored their southern neighbor and not been so supportive of the anti-slavery movement. Would Harriet Tubman have found as safe a haven and been able to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom as effectively? Without so many activist publications and such political pressure from international circles, might slavery have continued longer? In an ideal world, one of the legacies of this period would be for us to note how consistently Canadians have stood ready to defend great endeavors like this. Perhaps it is time that we give them credit for it.
                 
Related Topics:  
Sources and Resources: