An American mom’s perspective on the Underground Railroad

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Posted February 29, 2012 by Nicole Keck in Ontario
Black History; Windsor; Chatham; Uncle Tom's Cabin; Underground Railroad

A doll sits in a tunnel beneath Windsor’s Sandwich Baptist Church, which hid freed slaves from US bounty hunters. (Nicole Keck/Vacay.ca)

Story by Nicole Keck
Vacay.ca Family Travel Columnist

WINDSOR, ONTARIO — To read about slavery is one thing, to see its artifacts up close and to hear its stories of trial and triumph is quite another. My recent trip to the Underground Railroad sites in southern Ontario demonstrated what I already knew to be true: That governments can effect laws to legislate human behaviour, but they cannot legislate the human heart, the seat of motivation. Therein lies the root of human rights violations, hatred and injustice.

Seeing tangible testimony of such a tragic past made my husband and me wonder how and when we will broach this subject with our children. We choose to home school our three boys, so we try to approach most everything with a view to using it as a teaching tool. And like most parents, we have found that inculcating values takes just as much effort as teaching facts and figures; this tour provides plenty of material for both. The age at which this tour would be appropriate for students is difficult to say. In my research, I found that schools begin discussing slavery no earlier than grade three, when Ontario curriculum says students should learn about early settlements in Upper Canada (some of which included slaves). Taking the tour as a family would be beneficial because it would provide the basis for great discussions at home, having all experienced it together. I think you will find there is much more than facts, laws and dates to be gleaned.

Discovering This Unsettling History

Walking the grounds and museums of those sites is a quiet, contemplative experience; I felt deeply moved and humbled to be tracing the footsteps of thousands of fugitive slaves. I could not help but see children’s ankles in the display of tiny shackles, or hear the sound of families being torn apart as they stood one by one on an auction block. Staring down into the small trap door in the floor of the Sandwich Baptist Church made me imagine a family’s panic as they helped their children and their elderly ones down into the damp, dark tunnel, too small to stand in. I could almost hear the sound of boisterous and callous bounty hunters forcing their way into the building, greedy for the money they had been promised for the return of a slave owners’ “property.” The hidden fugitives must have clutched their babies to their chest, desperately hushing them if they cried, hearts pounding with fear as they tried to escape down to the riverside.

No doubt about it, the subject matter is unsettling, especially considering that governments, set up to serve the people, decided this was an acceptable way to treat humans. It would be easy, even tempting, to take this tour and think, “I’m so glad our society is  much more advanced and enlightened now.” To some extent that is true. Upper Canada passed the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire in 1793 and forbode it fully in 1810, 24 years before the crown abolished it. The US didn’t ban slavery until 1865, and that tardiness made necessary the Underground Railroad — and the heart-wrenching stories of those who took the journey to freedom.

But make no mistake, slavery is still a thriving global business because greed is alive and well, and along with it comes brazen disregard for human life. Ironically, the day after I returned from Ontario I saw a sign in a public restroom advertising the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), which runs a 24/7 hotline at 888-3737-888 (I assume it’s written like that as a memory aid), where victims or tipsters can find confidential help. That sign is posted in the U.S.A., “Land of the free,” in 2012 no less. So as parents we cannot leave the building of our children’s character’s to chance; hoping in vain that a “normal,” happy childhood, in a free country will automatically create in them kindness and compassion, empathy and mercy. We must be proactive in instilling these things; they are qualities overtly lacking in human society today in general, and our kids are not immune. Like deadly viruses, slavery being but one of many, these ills of human society are not bound by borders. Even if our families are by chance born or raised in a place where these atrocities do not appear to be prevalent, we cannot be apathetic.

The Strength to Not Feel Hate

On our tour, I met a black woman, older than me, small in physical stature but with experience and wisdom in her eyes. At one point she quietly said to me, “It would take a very strong person to come out of this situation and not be filled with hate.” It was such an astute observation in that moment, seeing as we were staring into an underground tunnel of terror, and it made me wonder, how did those parents explain such things to their children; how did they teach them not to hate in a world that had so violently stolen their innocence?

Whether our kids receive their education at home, in public school or private; as parents we are their first and most important teachers, and we have an obligation to open their eyes to the state of human affairs and how they fit into it. Sometimes that means we have to be the ones to take a piece of their innocence in order to protect them. This was a heartbreaking realization to me when I first had to warn my two-year-old son never to wander from me in public (like he so often did), because (gulp), “There are bad people who will take you from Mommy.” The frightened look of disbelief on his face is cemented in my mind. I don’t mean to sound negative, but things do not appear to have changed much during the past 200 years as we would like to believe, and we need to prepare our children, physically, mentally and spiritually.

A Surprised American

The trip to Ontario had more of an effect on me than I had anticipated. I knew it would be educational, interesting and probably emotional, and it was all of those things. As a US citizen, I was also surprised to find out what a large role Canada played in the Underground Railroad, I don’t recall learning that in school. In the days afterward, though, I found my thoughts returned again and again to those people and the trials they endured to secure their freedom.

Travelling the UGRR (which, of course, was not literally underground, nor was it an actual railroad), meant traversing long distances, often on foot, sometimes in winter, families in tow, while carrying little or no provisions. Their determination was stronger than their fear. That is the strength I wish for my own children; it’s value is just as relevant today as it was 200 or even 2,000 years ago. People seek strength from many sources; in our family, for instance, it is found in our love for our creator, and based on faith and knowledge of His purposes.

For slaves, sometimes their faith was the only real possession they had. It certainly must have been what they clung to as they made their way north. Evidence for that supposition exists in the fact that the first thing the former slaves did with their freedom was build churches. And today, just as back then, no matter what a troubled society may try to take from us, whether our peace of mind, our security, our hope for the future, it cannot take what is safeguarded in our heart, or the hearts of our children.

As a parent, this trip was a stark reminder how vital it is to build with fine materials when molding our children, giving them things that no human will ever be able to take. It also affirmed to me that man-made borders can greatly affect one’s quality of life, but it can never take a person’s gift of free will. Living in the States, I’ve crossed the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor dozens of times, and looking up through the car window, I am still amazed at the passageway’s impressive height and stature. But to me, the river beneath it has never seemed so small … for once I’m safely across, I feel the warmth of the same sun, in the same blue sky. I imagine the fugitive slaves crossing that same river so long ago noticed the same thing, and pointed it out to their children.


About the Author

Nicole Keck
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Nicole is currently a homeschooling, stay at home mother of three young boys, (a.k.a. the three stooges, the little rascals – you get the picture.) Her passion for writing was sparked at a young age when an English teacher said, “It is a noble thing for one to have command over his or her own language and to use it for good.” Nicole studied at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and before the children came along, she and her husband enjoyed active travel such as hiking, backpacking, canoeing and kayaking. The detailed journals and poetry she wrote during those adventures remain among her most treasured possessions. You can read more about Nicole at nicolekeck.com.

  • Terry O

    I am moved to tears and so thoughtful of your words and observations. Thank you so very much. Amazing.

  • http://www.visitwindsoressex.com Elaine Sia

    You shine a light on the emotional impact of a journey through the Underground Railroad, then and now. These historic sites stand so that we will never forget the past, and so we can learn from it to protect our future. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    • http://vacay.ca/Vacay2011 Vicky Vacay

      Thanks for the comments, Elaine. We do hope more people journey to see these moving landmarks that have impacted how Canadian culture evolved.

  • Rick Setum

    I really enjoyed this article, but I feel that it was missing something fairly important. The article touched on faith, the importance of faith to a group of people who largely were disenfranchised. But at the same time, it’s hard to dispute the fact that faith was one of the larger reasons that slavery continued to exist throughout the 19th century. Scriptures such as Leviticus 25:44-46 served as justification for slave ownership to many, MANY, people: “However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.”

    Both in the old testament, and in the new testament, slavery is condoned and even treated as acceptable. The worst example comes from Exodus 21:20-21: When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.

    Of course, the New Testament doesn’t improve greatly on the slavery discussion; from Epesians 6:5: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.

    So, a slave owner, according to the bible – the main source of faith in North America, at minimum – could beat their slave nearly to death, but if they didn’t die, their behavior was completely acceptable. This scriptural position was used, repeatedly, to justify the concept of slave ownership, here, in the United States, through the 19th century. I have a hard time justifying the references to faith as being a positive influence in a discussion centered around slavery, and I think it should be recognized as the tool that it was – a tool that encouraged slave owners to continue owning human beings.

    The rest of the article, though, highlighting the importance of teaching the next generation about the wrongness of “owning” another human being, I though was great. This is a discussion that needs to happen in a family, and children should, ideally, be taught about things like this – but not taught while hiding the facts, even if it doesn’t align with a parent’s particular worldview.

 
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