19th Century US History

Black History Canadas Role as a Sanctuary for Escaped Slaves

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"Black History Canadas Role as a Sanctuary for Escaped Slaves"
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To slaves escaping from the U.S., in the first half of the 19th century, Canada was the "land of milk and honey". It was the Biblical land of Canaan (in contrast to the bondage of Egypt) come true. But without the heroic activities of particular individuals in mainly south west Ontario, that role may never have been realized. Canada was still heavily entangled in shaping her own identity, under the watchful eye of the British Crown. Canada's role as a sanctuary, in many ways, was a circumstantial role and one really limited to a particular southern region of Canada.

Political and social conditions in Canada favored the needs of runaway slaves.
There was a minimal slavery element in Canada, mainly because, long wintry conditions rendered farming seasons short. Slave labor was simply uneconomical. In 1793, Lieutenant Governor Colonel John Graves Simcoe, freed any slave entering Upper Canada, the current province of Ontario. His Upper Canada Abolition Act stated that any child born to a slave mother would be freed at 25 years of age. The British Imperial Act of 1833 followed and became effective on August 1, 1834. It abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, including the developing country of Canada. By chance, Canadian political conditions suited U.S. runaways.

According to philanthropist Benjamin Lundy, who travelled to Canada in 1832, Canadian social conditions were equal conditions. He recommended Canada as a desirable place for runaways. His report was a significant green light for those who ran and those who helped slaves along the way. But a second look at his reports show that black communities were isolated, evolving, self-sufficient communities, highly dependent on enterprising individuals who set them up and sustained them. Blacks were rarely integrated into existing communities.

The blacks who survived best were those who attached themselves to co-operative communities such as Buxton, Chatham and Owen Sound. (These were major communities at the end of the Underground Railroad; that loose network of freedom connections heading north to Canada or south to Mexico and the Caribbean.) They were all places just across the U.S. Canadian border. It is known that slaves ran as far east as Nova Scotia and as far west British Columbia, but records of what happened to them are eerily vague at best or silent.

But having said that, those special communities only evolved because Canadian law reserved some land for the Crown, some for Church groups and the remaining land in a region was "negotiable". The first recorded evidence of slaves using this latter option occurred in 1829. Then, the first colony of black pioneers arrived from Ohio to virgin, uncleared land north of London in Ontario. www.mnsi.net.com

Numbered among the successful communities are the church initiated communities.

Salem Chapel was a British Methodist Episcopal Church heading the settlement of St Catharines. This was where Harriet Tubman conducted her runaways. "Originally "Shipman's Corners" by the mid 1800s, St. Catharines was known as the "City of Refuge, the City of Good Will" for scores of slaves and refugees escaping the United States. They received fair wage for jobs such as waiting on tables in the popular natural spring spas of St. Catharines or joined the Colored Corps of Black militia who served the Crown." www.freedomlineenterprises.wordpress.com

Buxton was known as the Elgin settlement, begun in 1849, where "land was purchased by the Elgin Association through the Presbyterian Synod for the purpose of creating a settlement." www.buxtonmuseum.com It is also recorded whites petitioned to block the settlement, to the point where its key founder, Rev. William King, feared for his life. But the settlement continued. With John Brown, King offered the blacks work in the logging industry and education. His only condition was that they stayed on the land for 10 years. Many never left. By the 1860's Buxton had a population of about 1200, an incredible growth in under 20 years. That suggests it was an attractive destination for runaways.

But there were other communities with uniquely evolving identities.

Owen Sound, beginning life as the village of Sydenham, was first settled by Robert Rankin in 1841. It was generally regarded as the very last station on the UGGR. But full settlement by runaways was not realized till about 1857. In 1837, the Upper Canada Anti-Slavery Society was founded by Reverend Ephraim Evans in Toronto. Thomas Henning, the secretary, was instrumental in starting an Owen Sound branch. Yet, in the 1870's, it is recorded that only 10% of the population was black, amounting to 672 people. www.osblackhistory.com As an industrial and shipping hub, work was available in factories, on the docks and on the ships as cooks or deckhands. Perhaps this could be one model community of assimilation.

The Chatham community evolved, in the 1850's and 60's, as the hub of businesses run by blacks.

And near Dresden, Ontario evolved a community known as the Dawn community, a black co-operative settlement. It was established by Josiah Henson and became a model of blacks helping blacks (until fraud charges against Henson questioned its existence!) In 1841, Henson and other former slaves and white abolitionists purchased 200 acres of land near Dresden and turned it into an agricultural and manual labor training school for freedmen and fugitives. A saw and grist mill, a brickyard and a church were erected. In a short time, 500 runaways found opportunity here. And Henson's role was glorified as a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's powerful novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

The history of Canada as a sanctuary for escaped slaves is really the history of opportunity and circumstance. Canada did not take an active, direct role. That was left to individuals, both Canadian and non-Canadian, and even to visionary runaways themselves.

Chris Lackner, in the "Ottawa Citizen" 3.09.06, offers a Canadian point of view. He states, "Slavery refugees contributed the foundations of modern multiculturalism in Canada. Their history should be celebrated in a country that prides itself on diversity. Yet outside places like Windsor, Chatham and Niagara Falls - communities where many fugitives settled - Canadians are largely oblivious." Other sources suggest that this element of Canadian history has been omitted from the Canadian curriculum in schools until recent years. All this adds up to a non important element of Canadian history? Clearly, Canada did not see herself as a deliberate sanctuary for blacks.

To close with a thought. Black History Month was not ratified in Canada until 1978, when the Ontario Black History Society successfully petitioned the City of Toronto. "When the contributions of people of African descent are acknowledged, when the achievements of Black people are known, when Black people are routinely included or affirmed through our curriculum, our books and the media, and treated with equality, then there will no longer be a need for Black History Month." www.blackhistorysociety.ca.com

Perhaps Canada, as a whole, was not that perfect sanctuary of black legend. There is only one record of Canadian law failing a black refugee. In 1856, 2 Canadian magistrates co-operated with U.S. officials to capture runaway slave Archy Lanton. Both magistrates were immediately dismissed from their posts. But there are many personal records of ex slaves still suffering some form of social injustice in Canada.

After all, only self-motivated communities, mainly in south-west Ontario, give any evidence of a Canaan, that land of milk and honey.

www.findarticles.com esp. American Visions, April-May, 1995 by Charles Blockson, Henry Chase


More about this author: Gemma Wiseman