New struggles in Canada after the Underground Railroad

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Beginning in the early 19th century until 1863, people escaping slavery in the United States made their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad.  This is the subject of one of the exhibit alcoves in the Museum’s Canadian Journeys gallery, where I act as lead Researcher-Curator.

Many people know about Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad and as a refuge for Black people escaping slavery.  But what was life in Canada like for these refugees after their arrival? And what are the human rights lessons that their experience relays? 

Black people who came to Canada arrived with very little, often no more than the clothing they wore, which was usually inadequate for Canadian winters.  Forests were important to the Underground Railroad because they offered protection from the elements and places to hide – and forms the visual theme of our exhibit alcove.


A museum exhibit with stylized treesand text panels.
The Museum’s Underground Railroad exhibit reflects the importance of forests along the route of the Underground Railroad.


For refugees who were able to find work in Canada, the pay was often not enough to replace clothing and basic items abandoned in the United Statesi. To help meet some of their needs, clothing and other important necessities were collected by abolitionists in various cities in the northern States and delivered to Canada West, which described what is now southern Ontarioii.   

The reception of Black refugees in Canada was mixed. In the 1830s, they were generally welcomed by white Canadians.  This would change in later years, especially following the United States’ passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 when white Canadians feared a massive migration of refugee Blacks into Canadaiii. The abolitionist newspaper Voice of the Fugitive, for example, reprinted letters from Canadian settlers who expressed considerable racism towards Black settlements in the provinceiv.   


Painting of a black family walking through a forest, with a rider in pursuit.
A photo of the painting, Slave Hunt, by Thomas Moran (ca. 1864) depicts a family escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad. Source: Virginia Historical Society

These experiences of racism led to an editorial on the subject in the pages of the Voice of the Fugitve: 

“Color-phobia is a contagious disease.  It is more destructive to the mind than to the body.  It goes hard with a person who is a little nervous.  …  It frightens them up from the dining table at public houses, not because of a black man’s cooking the dinner or waiting on the table, but because of his sitting down to eat.  It excites them awfully when colored passengers enter the rail cars or stage coaches but not when they come in the capacity of waiters or servants.”v    


Eleven people pose in their Sunday best outside a wooden house.
Residents of a Black settlement in Ontario, ca. 1900. Source: Archives of Ontario.


Black refugees established communities throughout Canada West. Some of these settlement sites specialized in growing certain crops. Amherstburg, which was one of the earliest Black refugee settlements in Canada West, grew tobacco.vi Though agricultural pursuits were an important means for refugee Blacks to eke out an existence, some also went into business and provided important services to community members. They opened saloons, restaurants, established newspapers, and sold ice cream.  Others manufactured barrels, made rope, and sewed dresses.vii   


Several Black men push carts along a first road next to a house
Amherstburg, Ontario, around 1895. Amherstburg was one of many Black settlements founded by refugees who had escaped slavery in the United States. Source: Archives of Ontario, F 2076-16-7


Black refugee settlements established their own schools. The school in Sandwichviii, Canada West, began with12 students but quickly expanded to 46.  The class was held in a room with poor ventilation, uncomfortable seats, a lack of proper desks, and few books. Mary Bibb, the teacher at Sandwich, was able to secure a blackboard and other scholastic supplies from donors in Michiganix

After civil war began in the United States in 1861, Black refugees who had fled slavery began to return to that country; in some cases to enlist to fight with the Union.  Though many left Canada during that time, others remained in Canada to settle and build new lives.




i Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History, 2nd ed. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997) 244, 246.

ii Canada West is present day southern Ontario.  “Aid for the Fugitive Slaves,” Voice of the Fugitive 1 Jan. 1851: 3; “William P. Newman,” Voice of the Fugitive 15 Jan. 1851: 4.

iii Winks 142.  The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the United States in 1850 as a response to the growing numbers of Black slaves who fled captivity in the American South. The law allowed one to declare ownership of an escaped slave by affidavit alone, without proof or evidence that the individual in question had indeed been enslaved, which rendered the security of not just refugee slaves but all African Americans uncertain. The law also placed heavy penalties on those who assisted refugee slaves and denied suspects trial by jury.  Peter C. Ripley, Introduction to The Black Abolitionist Papers: Vol. II: Canada, 1830-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987): 10; Fred Landon, Canada’s Part in Freeing the Slave (Reprinted from the Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol. XVII. 1919?): 3, Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and Karolyn Smardz Frost, The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2002): 21

iv “Prejudice Against Color in Canada,” Voice of the Fugitive 26 Feb. 1851: 2.

“Color-Phobia,” Voice of the Fugitive 21 May 1851: 4.

vi Winks 145.  One hogshead was equal to 1000 lbs.  

vii Winks 246, 247.

viii Sandwich is now part of the City of Windsor, Ontario.

ix Mary E. Bibb, “Schools,” Voice of the Fugitive 26 Feb. 1851: 1.