What Travel Writers Say


The road that led to freedom

© By Ann Wallace
  The Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes in southern states stretching north, employed its jargon as secret code: stations safe houses, conductors guides, refugees packages, men hardware, women dry goods and children baggage. Canada was Caanan; the Ohio, Niagara and Detroit rivers the River Jordan; the Underground Railroad sweet chariot and take me to freedom sung as carry me home.
     John Graves Simcoe introduced a bill in 1793 to prevent further importation of slaves into Ontario; however, up to 60,000 freedom seekers arrived, some returning after Abolition, some remaining, their descendents the protectors of artifacts that reveal their incredible history.
     Twenty-nine sites commemorate Canada's role, routes extending from Windsor and Niagara to Owen Sound in the north. Sites include churches, schools, cabins, memorials, museums, cultural centers and more. Some fall under the Ontario Heritage Trust or National Historic Site umbrellas; others are maintained by communities. All are listed in an informative Ontario publication, A Visitor's Guide to Ontario's Underground Railroad.
     In Chatham, black history is celebrated in the Heritage Room at the W.I.S.H. Centre where I watched a 22-minute video and met curator, Gwendolyn Robinson, great-great niece of Mary Ann Shadd, founder of an anti-slavery newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, published in Chatham from 1853 to 1860. As the first woman newspaper owner in Canada, the Visitor's Guide states, "Many believe that Mary Ann Shadd's model of tolerance and her passion for a fair and just society paved the way for the Canadian mosaic as we know it today."
     Gwen explained, "Most yearned for the education denied them. After the Civil War, many Canadian-educated blacks returned to the U.S. as doctors, lawyers, congressmen and judges and some started schools. Others returned to recruit soldiers to fight in the Civil War as it was illegal to recruit soldiers on British colonial soil to fight in foreign wars."
     South of Chatham, Buxton houses the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. In 1849, Reverend William King brought 15 slaves from Louisiana to Canada to establish the Elgin Settlement at Buxton, a self-sufficient community growing to 300 in six years. They voted out the incumbent M.P.P. who, two years previously, won his seat on an anti-negro immigration platform. Buxton blossomed to a community of 2,000 black landowners and business people.
     Shannon Prince, curator, works alongside assistant curator, Spencer Alexander, both sixth-generation descendents from slaves. Shannon's husband, Bryan, won the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal for his contribution to black history as author of I Came as a Stranger.
     In Dresden, north of Chatham, sits the historic site famous the world over: Uncle Tom's Cabin. Josiah Henson's autobiography, written when he was 60, was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, selling 300,000 copies its first year of publication. President Lincoln credited it as the catalyst for the American Civil War.
     In his early 40's Josiah Henson escaped from Kentucky with his wife and four children and with other abolitionists, purchased land and founded the British American Institute, one of the first schools in Canada for vocational training, graduates plying their trades in local farms, mills and industries. He helped defend his land as captain of a black militia group stationed at Fort Malden during the 1837 Rebellion.
     Today, the five-acre historic site celebrates the accomplishments of Josiah and Harriet Beecher Stowe with a fine audio-visual presentation and collection of 19th century artifacts and rare books of the abolitionist era. Outside the Interpretive Centre, stands a restored period church, a saw-mill, two cemeteries and the original Henson dwelling, referred to as Uncle Tom's cabin. Steven Cook, curator, brings enthusiasm to both his job and his history! So, bring your children and/or grandchildren to Chatham-Kent on a voyage of discovery, revealing Canada's proud historical role in the Underground Railroad.

Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.

Photo Credits
Chatham-Kent Tourism

If you go
This Destination
as seen on
YouTube
Chatham-Kent Tourism: www.visitck.ca
National Historic Site and Museum: www.buxtonmuseum.com
Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society: www.ckblaclhistoricalsociety.org
Uncle Tom's Cabin: www.uncletomscabin.com
RetroSuites 1.866.61RETRO; www.retrosuites.com
I Came as a Stranger (Bryan Prince): Tundra Books: www.tundrabooks.com ($22.99)

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