Story Ideas

Black Freedom Trail.

Explore Ontario’s Black freedom history during the International Decade for People of African Descent.

29 December 2015

Suggested tweet: Explore Ontario’s rich Black freedom history #explorecanada

Celebrate the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) by visiting historic sites in Ontario where Black slaves found freedom in the 19th century.

Between 1830 and 1865, it’s estimated that 30,000 Blacks fled slavery in the United States via the "Underground Railroad," a secret network of routes they travelled by night, and safe houses where they hid during the day. Canada was “the promised land.” Most slaves arrived in southwestern Ontario, where houses, churches, cemeteries and plaques recall their daring escapades and individual stories of bravery.

Begin your own journey of discovery on the Niagara Freedom Trail at The Crossing in Fort Erie, where many slaves crossed the Niagara River under cover of darkness, often with the help of sympathetic ferry captains. Once across, they were housed at Bertie Hall until they could find jobs and permanent homes, such as in Little Africa, north of Fort Erie, where about 200 slaves lived out their lives in freedom.

In St. Catharines, visit Salem Chapel, a church built by freedom seekers for their rapidly growing community. It also served as a temporary shelter for new arrivals, including the more than 300 slaves rescued by Harriet Tubman. A former slave from Maryland, Tubman was known as the Moses of her people and the greatest “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. She made an estimated 19 trips back to the American South, at great risk to her own freedom.

In nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, a plaque at the Negro Burial Ground informs visitors that Upper Canada—now Ontario—was the first British territory to limit slavery when it passed the Upper Canadian Act Against Slavery in 1793.

You can learn more about Black history in the Niagara region from Lezlie Harper Wells, a fifth-generation descendent of a fugitive slave from Kentucky. Her Niagara Bound Tours combine visits to historic sites with personal stories.

At the other end of Lake Erie, more Black historical sites are waiting to be explored. Fans of Uncle Tom’s Cabin will want to visit the former home of Reverend Josiah Henson in Dresden. Henson was an abolitionist; his memoirs formed the basis of the bestselling book. Like Harriet Tubman, Henson made repeated forays back into the US, risking his own life to bring more slaves to freedom. Henson also helped create a vocational school in the Black settlement of Dawn, where former slaves could share skills and learn to become self-sufficient.

Another Ontario town rich in Black slave history is Owen Sound, on the shore of Georgian Bay, where some slaves arrived by canoe after paddling across the treacherous waters of Lake Huron from northern Michigan. Follow the Underground Railroad Driving Tour, or walk or cycle the 10-km (6-mi) Freedom Trail and see where former slaves lived, worked and worshipped. Learn about the fascinating way they communicated with each other, using quilts to follow the route to freedom.

Whether you spend a few hours or a few days exploring slave history, you’ll never take freedom for granted again.

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