Underground Railroad sites make Ontario shine
Story by Nicole Keck
Vacay.ca Family Travel Columnist
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness … and many of our people need it solely on these accounts.” ~Mark Twain
WINDSOR, ONTARIO — Black History Month puts the spotlight on Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad, and whether you are looking to connect with the past, understand the present, or shape the future, Ontario is a veritable treasure trove of historical gems related to that brave and successful movement. In fact, black history is so rich in southern Ontario, as you can see from this map, it would take a significant amount of time to see all of the sites and give them the attention they deserve. This article highlights Windsor and Essex, and Chatham-Kent; it’s an area that would make a fantastic trip of two to three days. (Vacay.ca has also covered a related subject in this article headlined “Why it’s vital to preserve Niagara’s Black history.”)
We hope the following information and resources will help you to plan your own trip to see these essential pieces of history. And perhaps it will inspire you to delve further into the role played by Ontario, then called Upper Canada, in the Underground Railroad (UGRR,) and the enormous impact it had on shaping our nation’s society.
WINDSOR AND ESSEX
John Freeman Walls Historical Site and Underground Railroad Museum and Village
This is a family-owned and operated site that is not only a tourist attraction, but a destination for educational field studies and a favourite place of solitude for famed American civil rights activist Rosa Parks. At this location you will meet descendants of the UGRR and “conductors” (tour guides) will take “passengers” (you) on an interactive trip back in time. The 1846 log cabin on site was built by John Freeman Walls and his wife, Jane King Walls, who rest in the family cemetery on the property. Dr. Bryan Walls, born in Puce, Ontario, and a graduate of the University of Toronto, is an enthusiastic living descendent of this pioneering couple. A visiting professor at Niagara University who teaches multi-cultural education, Walls has done extensive research into his ancestral heritage, which can be found in his novel The Road That Led To Somewhere, published in 1980. He learned much from his aunt, Stella Butler, his family’s “Griot,” or, “keeper of oral history.” She purchased the family homestead in 1976 and lived to 102. Today, Walls is helping provide educational materials to schools so that children may, in his words, “Learn from our elders,” and “Stand on their shoulders.”
Location: 859 Puce Rd. Lakeshore, ON N0R 12A7
Phone: 519.727.6555, call for hours of operation
Sandwich First Baptist Church
Erected in 1851 and still serving the Sandwich community today, this church was handmade with clay from the Detroit River by slaves who had escaped via the UGRR, as well as free blacks already living in Upper Canada. In return for their hard work, they were given a safe haven, food, and clothing. Although illegal, bounty hunters from the US regularly crossed the border looking for escaped slaves. In 1859, a valuable slave may have been worth $1,500, which translates into $46,000 by today’s standards. Anyone who was captured and sent back to their owners was severely punishment, and possibly dismembered or killed. Although these bounty hunters had no qualms about interrupting Sunday services at Sandwich Baptist, what they didn’t realize was this congregation went to great lengths to protect each other, and the fugitives were sometimes right under their noses, quite literally. Escapees sat in an area of the church near a trap door in the floor; at a moment’s notice they could easily disappear into a passage that led them all the way to the river’s edge and to safety. The congregation would sing loudly, accompanied by the piano to drown out the noise of these families escaping, sometimes with babies and children in tow. This trap door and tunnel can still be seen by visitors … bring your Kleenex. Many members of this community can trace their family line all the way back to those perilous times with vivid and fascinating details of their ancestors’ lives. Spend some time with these fine people, listen to their amazing stories and taste the richness of their culture. It’s something you won’t soon forget.
Location: 3652 Peter St., Windsor, ON N9C 1J8
North American Black Historical Museum
At this site you will find the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1848 by former slaves and free blacks using stones from farmer’s fields. It played a key role in providing food, shelter and assistance for those seeking to carve out a better life with their new-found freedom. In 2000, the building was restored and designated a National Historic Site. The church no longer holds services, but is now used for special events such as concerts, weddings, and meetings.
Beside the church is a building that houses the main exhibit of artifacts and the Taylor Log Cabin. The exhibit features treasures of black history not only from the Underground Railroad, but also from Africa before the slave trade, the Middle Passage, black skills and accomplishments, music, press, and military. Escapee and US Civil War veteran George Taylor lived in the cabin (which may have been moved from Fort Malden), and it contains artifacts dating to the 1850s. It gives visitors a quiet reminder of the simple dignity of having a place to call home, and the freedom to enjoy it.
Location: 277 King St., Amherstburg, ON N9V 2C7
Phone: 519.736.5433 or 800.713.6336
Buxton National Historic Site and Museum
Sitting on the original site of the Elgin settlement, one of the last stops on the UGRR for runaway slaves, the Buxton National Historic site and Museum celebrates the success of the self-sufficient community founded by Reverend William King in 1849. There are numerous artifacts to see here, including adult and children’s shackles, Reverend King’s diary, a large research library, 1852 log cabin, 1855 barn, 1866 church and cemetery, and an 1861 school — the only remaining school in Canada that was built by former slaves.
The school welcomed all children, offering them a classical education and, in fact, was so successful that the segregated white school in the area eventually closed due to lack of enrollment. Today, Buxton is a thriving village whose citizens primarily consist of descendents of the original settlers. The pride of these residents is almost tangible. They have worked very hard to preserve their African Canadian heritage. They hold an annual homecoming event on Labour Day weekend, from Friday through Monday; it’s a tradition that turns 87 years old this September and it draws thousands from across North America. It includes a history and genealogy conference, a party in the park with dancing, sports events, church services, a parade, children’s activities, crafts and exhibits (and you can bet there will be plenty of delicious soul food!). See their website for more details.
Location: 21975 A.D. Shadd Rd., CR 6, North Buxton, ON N0P 1Y0
Heritage Room at the WISH Centre/ Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society
In the early 1800s, five black families settled along McGregor’s Creek in a town then known as The Forks (now Chatham), and by 1850 the population was one-third black. It came to be known as “The Black Mecca” or “The Colored Man’s Paris” because of the success the settlers had in business, education, medicine, sports, and the literary and cultural arts. News spread and blacks were attracted to the area from all across North America. On your visit, you can take guided or self-guided tours, view a collection of rare books, original photos and artifacts, enjoy BME Freedom Park, or do some research in their records; including genealogical and census records, military records, newspaper articles, and land registries.
Location: 177 King Street East, Chatham, ON N7M 3N1
Josiah Henson (Uncle Tom’s) Cabin Historical Site
Josiah Henson escaped from slavery in Kentucky and quickly became a leader and “conductor” for the UGRR. In 1841, he co-founded the British-American Institute, a vocational school for UGRR refugees. You can visit this historical property that was originally 200 acres, and was purchased by Henson and his supporters to build the school; you can also learn about the Dawn settlement that grew around it.
On the grounds you will find an interpretive center, Henson’s cabin (the last place he called home before his death), a smokehouse and sawmill, the Henson family cemetery and Pioneer Church. In 1849, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, using Henson’s memoirs as reference material. Sadly, the term “Uncle Tom” has sometimes been used in a derogatory way, because the novel was made into a play shortly after it was published and artistic liberties were taken with the material. The real “Uncle Tom,” Josiah Henson, was called by that character’s name for much of his remaining life. However, shortly before he died, he finally asserted that his name was not Uncle Tom and he preferred to honour his own given name for all it stood for.
Location: 29251 Uncle Tom’s Road, Dresden, ON N0P 1M0
First Baptist Church, Chatham
Location: 135 King Street East, Chatham, ON N7M 3N1
Land was purchased for this church in 1850 and the Land Registration Title was recorded as The First Coloured Baptist Church in 1852. Reverend Horace Hawkins, a former slave in Kentucky, signed the document. Portions of the original structure remain under the brick facade. It is the site of a meeting that took place on May 10, 1858 after a letter was written by John Brown, calling a convention to organize a free state for slave families, within the United States. An oath of secrecy was made and a 48-article Constitution was signed by the participants. Seventeen months later, on October 16, 1859, John Brown and his supporters made a raid on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, but were captured within days. Brown was executed by hanging on December 2, 1859, but Osborn Perry Anderson escaped, returned to Chatham and wrote, A Voice From Harper’s Ferry chronicling the events.
From June 14-16, Chatham-Kent will hold The Promised Land Project 5th Symposium entitled Claiming The Promise: A Retrospective on African-Canadian History. Events include various guest speakers at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a tour of sites in Dresden and Chatham, and an evening banquet. The special key note speaker will be Lawrence Hill, author of the bestselling novel, The Book of Negroes. He will speak Friday night, June 15, at the Capitol Theatre in Windsor. Find details and ticket information for this special weekend at the University of Ottawa website email Devin Andrew. Tickets to the Lawrence Hill event can be purchased at www.cktickets.com or by calling 519.354.8338.
If you plan to set out to experience these important places, you may obtain more information from:
North Star Tours – where Karen Smallwood will be happy to help you with your travel arrangements.
Text or call: 519.977.2065