Between 1840 and 1860, more than 30,000 American slaves came secretly to Canada to find freedom.
“When my feet first touched the Canadian shore, I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them.” These were the words of Josiah Henson recalling his first moments as a free man. Henson had escaped to Canada along the “underground railroad,” a network of secret paths, hiding places and safe houses that stretched from southern states to the borders of Canada. Like countless other immigrants, Henson came to Canada as a refugee escaping brutality and oppression.
The slaves fled the inhuman treatment they suffered in the southern United States, where they were – by law – the property of their owners. Beaten and whipped and forced to obey, many worked up to eighteen hours a day in the fields, returning at night to squalid shacks for meagre rations of corn meal and bacon scraps.
Among the many tragic stories of slavery were tales of husbands taken from wives and of children torn from their mothers to be sold like animals. Captured runaway slaves were often tortured. Professional slave catchers, notorious for their cruelty, tracked runaway slaves all the way from the deep South to the Canadian border. It took enormous courage to escape.
But thanks to the “agents” on the underground railroad [men and women, white and black, Canadian and American], many slaves found freedom in Canada. Some of these agents have become legends. The great Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself, returned south again and again to lead others north. A Canadian, Alexander Ross, travelled to southern plantations in the guise of a gentleman bird fancier. His real mission, however, was to direct slaves to the escape routes.
Dr. Martin Luther King said that in the history of black America, “Canada was the north star.” The old spiritual, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” gave slaves the hidden advice to keep their eyes on the Gourd [the Big Dipper], which pointed the way north to “heaven,” in this case Canada.
Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on the underground railroad. Visit the Historica-Dominion Institute to purchase the complete Historica Minutes and Black History Canada for more information on the Black-Canadian experience.