Canada

By Blockson, Charles; Chase, Henry | American Visions, April-May 1995 | Go to article overview

Canada


Blockson, Charles, Chase, Henry, American Visions


Canada's role in the Underground Railroad is interesting, particularly to me, because I have discovered that members of my own family made it from southern Delaware to Canada. My great-grandfather, who escaped in 1856, stayed a few years in Canada, as Jacob Blockson, who is mentioned in William Still's book, which was the first written by leading member of the Underground Railroad. When I went to Canada last summer and was talking to the Walls, who are the descendants of an escapee who arrived in Canada in 1846, thy spoke of people who remembered my relatives.

Some of my relatives stayed in Canada; others came back to the united states. Canada was not the promised land that many of our ancestors may have expected after reading Or hearing of Benjamin Lundy's report of his 1832 visit. Canada was cold. Canada had prejudice during' those days--as Mary Ann Shadd noted in some of her articles that appeared in The Provincial Freeman. in Canada, too, there was competition for jobs--and an Clement Of segregation. It was not the promised land that most people bragged about. Charles Blockson

The Upper Canada Abolition Act of 1793, which placed limited constraints on existing slavery and which established that any slave newly entering the province, whether with his or her master or in flight from bondage, would be deemed legally free, was enacted the same year the U.S. Congress passed its first Fugitive Slave Law. The Canadian news quickly spread south to the United States, and by the time the first black national convention in the United States met in 1830, Canada was well-known as a refuge for escapees. Convention delegates approved of migration there even as they decisively rejected a homeland in Liberia.

Migration to Canada accelerated in the 1830s as restraints on free black existence in America were intensified and as Benjamin Lundy's The Genius of Universal Emancipation reported on the greater racial equality north of the border. (During Lundy's Ontario, Canada, visit of 1832, he found more than 300 African Americans living in Amherstburg; "a considerable settlement" at Chatham; several hundred souls near London; and distinct black districts at Woolrich and Oro Township.)

All this history and more are explored at the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre in Amherstburg. Although the museum covers black history from Africa to the present, its focus is the Underground Railroad and the black settlements of southwestern Ontario. Slave sale bills, maps of fugitive routes, contemporaneous newspaper accounts of black settlements, a log cabin circa 1855, a small genealogical file and black-oriented videotapes offer visitors a window onto a world with which most North Americans, on both sides of the border, are unfamiliar.

While many free blacks moved north, the most dramatic migration to Canada involved those fleeing slavery--and even today, the most emotionally compelling Canadian sites tied to 19th-century African Americans interpret the story of the flight to freedom. In 1830, Josiah Henson loaded his family into a small boat and crossed the Ohio River, leaving Kentucky and bondage behind and setting out on the frightening road of a freedom still in jeopardy from slave catchers. For two weeks the family traveled by night and hid by day, before finally reaching a northern sanctuary.

Once in Canada, Henson settled down to providing for his family, though much of his time was devoted to assisting fugitives. Toward this end, in 1841 Henson and other former slaves and white abolitionists purchased 200 acres of land near Dresden, Ontario. Here they established an agricultural and manual labor training school for freedmen and fugitives, as the nucleus of Dawn, a black cooperative settlement. Soon a saw and grist mill, a brickyard and a church were erected, and approximately 500 souls settled in an expanding black community. Six years later, Henson stepped onto the world's stage in a small way with the publication of his biography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. …

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