Beginning around 1840 and until 1860, the “Underground Railroad” operated to liberate slaves from enslavement in the South to freedom in the North. The conductors of the railroad were former slaves and white abolitionists. The most famous conductor was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849. After obtaining her freedom, she returned to the South 19 times to rescue 300 other slaves and never losing one.
A key part of this movement that is rarely highlighted is the role that Canada played in providing a sanctuary for runaway slaves who successfully reached its borders. I had the opportunity to explore this side of history on a trip with New All Saints Church to Ontario in late September 2008. Tracing the Underground Railroad, we visited several “stations” for the railroad which included churches, museums and national historic sites. These “stations” were: The North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre at the Nazrey AME Church; Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel BME Church of Canada and Niagara Freedom Trail; the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Salem Chapel-Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Site; the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum; Historic Sandwich First Baptist Church; Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site; and the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum.
At the “stations” we saw tunnels, heard storytellers, viewed artifacts, visited hidden refuge rooms, viewed video documentaries and took guided tours led by Canadians who are descendents of former slaves. The guides were many times the owners of the historic sites and were very passionate about their mission to preserve the history of a disenfranchised people. They took great pride in their work and shared with us their struggle to hold onto our collective history.
Throughout this journey, I listened, observed, walked where my ancestors walked and prayed for them. I contemplated how brave they were to risk everything – their very lives – for freedom. And I also thought of the brave and courageous people who helped them. They too risked their own safety and freedom to help others flee the brutality of slavery. How terrifying it must have been to run through the woods in pitch-black darkness with the sound of barking dogs ringing in your ears. When those barks became louder, it meant that the slave catchers were closing in on you. But you continued to run desperately toward freedom through the bushes, as thorns slashed your face, and you hit trees that you could not see in the dark. Your feet hurt and bled, but you kept moving at the hysterical urging of the “conductor.” Quick into the river you went to throw off your scent from the dogs. You swam slowly and quietly to the other bank of the river to safety, to freedom. Finally you made it to one of the stations in Canada where you rested, dried out and consumed the provided food and drink. At sundown you moved on deeper into Canada so as not to get caught by the slave catchers who pursued slaves across the border.
When I reflect on the journey of my ancestors, the distance and the obstacles, I know only God could have made it possible. So many things could have gone wrong, but that didn’t happen to the successful “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. God made a way out of no way for those brave and courageous men and women. It was no accident that many of the “stations” of the railroad were hidden within churches. Instructions for the next freedom train were given in the hymns and spirituals sang by the slaves and their “conductors.”
Many of the abolitionists were people of faith. When others used God to justify their evil of enslaving, brutalizing and mistreating fellow human beings, these brave liberators, instead, answered God’s call to deliver men, women and children from slavery to freedom.
Part two to come.
Glendora C. Hughes, Esq., is a member of historic St. Francis Xavier, Baltimore.