By Renée S. Gordon
On the Hart Plaza Riverfront, at one of narrowest points between the U.S. and Canada on the Detroit River, stands “The Gateway to Freedom” Underground Railroad Memorial. The ten by twelve-foot sculpted tableau consists of figures arrayed between two columns. George DeBaptist, a Detroit UGRR conductor, points in the direction of Canada while a group of fugitives prepare to board a boat. Inscribed on the base are maps etched with routes to Canada.
Directly across the river, at 200 Pitt Street East on the City Hall Esplanade in Windsor, Canada, is a second figural sculpture, the “Ontario Underground Railroad Memorial.” The “Internal Flame of Freedom,” representative of the candles often used to indicate a safe haven along the route, crests this 22-ft. “Freedom Tower”. These four figures depict a female Quaker conductor greeting a freedom seeking woman holding a baby, a male offering up prayers of gratitude and a slave child gazing wistfully back toward the U.S. on the northern side of the memorial. The statues’ base lists names important to the Canadian abolition movement.
Both artworks are the creation of renowned sculptor Ed Dwight. Dwight, appointed by President John F. Kennedy as America’s first African American astronaut trainee, completed the works in 2001 and they were both dedicated on October 21st of that year with Aretha Franklin participating in the Detroit ceremony.
This “snapshot” of Canada’s place in UGRR history serves as visual orientation for the journey we are about to embark upon. It is estimated that thousands of fugitives fled to Canada via Detroit. Though they fled, their ambivalence about America and those they left behind, as expressed through the figure of the slave child, was evidenced by both the numbers that returned to the U.S. after the 1863 Emancipation and the numbers whose family members joined them in Canada to make a new life. www.ontariotravel.net
From Canada’s earliest days there were individuals of African descent in Canadian territory. The first documented individual was Mathieu de Costa. Described as a “negro servant,” he was employed by the governor of Port Royal in Nova Scotia. Periodically there were influxes of blacks spurred by events in the U.S., after the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the 1834 abolition of slavery in Canada and most significantly during the early 19th century because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The Afro-Canadian story is related in eighteen Ontario locations along a Heritage Network. Four of the sites focus on the efforts of freedom seekers who traveled the Windsor Route and settled in and around that area. www.africanhertour.org
Reverend Josiah Henson was born enslaved in 1789. In 1839, he and his family escaped from Kentucky across the Ohio River. He crossed into Canada through Buffalo and immediately began to help other fugitives both as a speaker and UGRR conductor. In 1841, he was instrumental in establishing the British American Institute, a vocational school on 200-acres of land near Chatham. The endeavor expanded into a cooperative, self-sufficient, settlement they named Dawn.
Henson published his autobiography in 1849, at the age of 60, and in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as the basis for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Her book sold 300,000 copies in its first year and jettisoned Henson to international fame. Henson died in 1883 and is buried at the site.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site is a 50-acre complex that consists of five buildings. Tours begin in the Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre with a documentary film shown in the North Star Theatre. The 5,700-ft. museum features exhibits on slavery, Stowe and her novel, the Dawn Settlement and Josiah Henson. Highlights of the displays are international editions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Henson’s pulpit, three of twelve remaining chairs handcrafted at the school and a dual timeline that covers the period from slavery to Obama in both Canadian and United States history.
The exterior exhibits are outstanding. An 1850 Pioneer Church contains Henson’s original organ and the 1890 Harris House, one room deep and two rooms tall, is typical of the architectural style used by the settlers. The Henson House, hardly a cabin, was constructed in the 1850s as his last residence. Tours also include a hollowed out sycamore tree that functioned as a smokehouse, the sawmill and two cemeteries.
The Central Station Gift Shop has a wonderful selection of art, literature and other unique collectibles and souvenirs. 29251 Uncle Tom’s Road. www.uncletomscabin.org
Although the First Baptist Church, 135 King Street East, may be viewed from the exterior only unless you are attending Sunday service, this is an important stop on the trail. This was the third, and final, place in Chatham that John Brown and his co-conspirators met to plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry and adopt a provisional U.S. Constitution devoid of slavery in May of 1858. The table around which they met is on display inside the church and a historic marker is located outside.
The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society Heritage Room at the WISH Centre seeks to preserve and present the Afro-Canadian history of Chatham once recognized as Ontario’s Black Mecca. The area, known as ‘The Forks,” was initially settled in the early 19th-century by five black families. It soon became a harbor for freedom seekers and a thriving and affluent community.
The centre serves as a genealogical library and museum. The permanent collection includes models, interactive displays, memorabilia, photographs, documents and artifacts. A special exhibition of dolls is currently on display the highlights of which are several rare Leo Moss dolls crafted between 1890 and 1930. They are recognizable by the signature teardrops on their papier-mâché faces. Tours are self-guided. 177 King St. East Chatham. www.ckblackhistoricalsociety.org
It is fitting that the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum be our final stop as it was for so many escaping bondage. The Elgin Settlement in Buxton was one of four black cooperative colonies and, with 9,000-acres and a population of more than 2,000, the largest and most successful in Canada. Elgin was unique in a number of ways not the least of which is how it came into being.
William King was born in Ireland in 1812 and migrated to Ohio in 1833. Three years later he moved to Louisiana to teach. After successfully founding a well-regarded school in 1839 he became the Headmaster of Mathews Academy of Louisiana College. In 1841 he married Mary Phares, daughter of a wealthy family, and became a reluctant slave owner. In 1843 he purchased a plantation and the next year he returned to Europe to obtain a divinity degree from the University of Edinburgh.
King and his family were in Ohio in 1845 when their son died and a baby girl was born. On February 26, 1846 Mary died shortly after the death of her father and her death was followed three months later by that of his daughter. King, as Phares’ only surviving family member, inherited everything including a number of slaves. In August he was ordained a minister and sent as a missionary to Canada. In 1847, he traveled to Louisiana to personally remove his slaves from the state and liberate them in free territory.
April 1848 found him transporting 15 slaves 2,000-miles to the family farm where he freed them. After realizing that freedom without safety and skills was useless, he created a plan for an all black colony that would provide all the things necessary to attain self-sufficiency. The Elgin Settlement was established in 1849, against local opposition, and flourished until 1873.
On November 30, 1849, King and his former slaves arrived in Buxton. The following month he purchased land that was then sold to only black colonists in 50-acre parcels at $2.50 an acre to be paid off in ten years. Settlement houses had to be 24x18x12 feet, 33-ft. from the road and have a fence, flower garden and front porch. Two of the first buildings constructed were the school, one of the first integrated schools on the continent, and the church.
The series of galleries on the museum tour begin with enslavement in Africa. Highlights of the tour are a two-deck cutaway of a slave ship that vividly depicts the torturous conditions endured, slave manacles, Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s printing press and Reverend King’s bedroom set. Adjacent to the museum is an 1861 schoolhouse, the only surviving structure in Canada of its type constructed by former slaves, and the British Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Buxton Liberty Bell, donated by the “Colored Inhabitants of Pittsburgh,” is situated at the museum entrance. This 500-lb. bell tolled twice a day, 6 AM and 9 PM, as a reminder of those still enslaved. It was also rung each time a fugitive reached Elgin and liberty. Visitors are encouraged to ring the historic bell. 21975 A. P. Shadd Rd. The UGRR is considered the first international, intergenerational, interracial protest movement in history. To trace its Windsor trajectory is to memorialize the people and events that made freedom a reality. Maps, guides and information to help you plan your visit are available online. www.chatham-kent.ca
I wish you smooth and epic travels!