Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 40
HERE THE SLAVE FOUND FREEDOM

There is a bronze plaque on the Dominion Bank Building of Windsor, Ontario, which bears the following inscription: "HERE THE SLAVE FOUND FREEDOM. Before the United States Civil War of 1861-65, Windsor was an important terminal of the underground railroad. Escaping from bondage thousands of fugitive slaves from the South, men, women, and children landing near this spot found in Canada friends, freedom, protection under the British flag."

Most of these people went to Canada after 1850, but some had been going since Revolutionary days. Upper Canada provided for gradual abolition of slavery on July 9, 1793, the year Congress passed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, and from that date until the Civil War the flight of slaves from the United States never quite ceased. Slavery was completely abolished there by parliamentary act of 1833.1 There were not more than one thousand Negroes, slave and free, in the whole of Canada when the War of 1812 began, but many were carried away from the United States ports by British warships, some to the Bahamas and Bermuda, but a goodly number to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Henry Clay said the number was 3,601; we accepted payment for 1,650.2 There is no way of knowing how many of these refugees actually went to Canada, but some did, and this became common knowledge among the slaves. Henry Clay, secretary of state in 1826, requested extradition of fugitives. The British government refused on the ground that property in human beings was not recognized by the laws of Canada and every slave entering the province became free immediately whether he had been brought there or had come of his own accord.3 Canada, thereafter, was the one certain haven of refuge.

Most of the fugitives entered Essex and Kent counties, Ontario, by way of Detroit, and there in Amherstburg still stands the old Negro Baptist Church, built of timbers cut and squared by men who had worn the fetters of slavery. The auction block, the slave pens, and the prisons, with their separation of families and all else that was involved in the nefarious traffic in human flesh, had driven them into a stroke for freedom.4 Certainly, no engine of torture was ever more demoralizing than the sale of men and women as cattle of the field, and certainly also, if better reasons for flight were needed, the scars of brutal beatings which so many bore were silent testimony that they were ample. The New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, December 19, 1860, said that 1,500 slaves had escaped annually to the free states and Canada during the previous fifty years. It was a conservative estimate.

Many of the Negroes living in the free states were fugitives at all times. Some remained there; some passed on to Canada after gaining a competence, or at times of peril. Some of the Negroes in the free states were free by virtue of state emancipation acts, or by manumission, or by being born free. It would have taken a great deal more brains than United States commissioners possessed to have sorted all these people out. There were many times in the 1820's and 1830's, during the era of mob violence, when free Ne

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