Rediscover Black history in Ontario
Thousands of enslaved and free Black Americans risked the dangerous journey to Upper Canada (now Ontario) to escape the atrocities of slavery in the United States during the 19th century. Many used the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes developed by people of various faiths and races committed to providing safe passage to Canada, where slavery was not legal.
The Underground Railroad featured brave guides (“conductors”) who directed refugees (“passengers”) to their destination (“station”). Along the routes, safe houses served as rest stops for freedom seekers before continuing the long journey.
Below are places to learn more about the Underground Railroad and early Black settlement in Ontario.
NOTE: Be sure to check online for hours of operation and all requirements before visiting.
The Tower of Freedom is an Underground Railway monument created by sculptor Ed Dwight that was unveiled in 2001. It:
- captures the emotional exhilaration of the freedom seekers once they stepped onto foreign soil.
- acknowledges the various communities in Southern Ontario where freedom seekers settled.
Sandwich First Baptist Church, was built by former enslaved people. In addition to being a place of worship, it was where innovative and creative ways were used to free people from slavery. For example:
- Since many people could not read or write, they memorized hymns and spiritual songs that provided them with secret directions on where to go to find freedom.
- At Sandwich First Baptist Church, certain hymns played during services were actually coded messages to warn that the bounty hunters were nearby.
- There’s also a secret tunnel in the church that provided a convenient escape route from bounty hunters.
Black settlement was popular in Amherstburg since it is very close to the American border.
The Amherstburg Freedom Museum gives a fascinating look at the early community, and includes a:
- church (Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church)
- log cabin home (Taylor Log Cabin)
The Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church represented the importance of churches for the freedom seekers as a place to worship, and a safe place to learn after being denied an education south of the border.
The Taylor Log Cabin is an example of the living spaces for early settlers.
John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum
Located 20 minutes east of Windsor, this historic site is named after John Freeman Walls, a former enslaved person from North Carolina, who travelled the Underground Railroad with his "master’s" widow Jane and her children. The couple eventually got married and the homestead he built was also used as a safehouse for those seeking freedom. Highlights include:
- The eight-hectare property also has a cemetery and a walkway that recreates the conditions freedom seekers experienced fleeing tracker dogs and hunters.
- The descendants of John Freeman Walls continue to educate people about his legacy at this significant heritage site.
- Today, the site showcases artifacts that are reminders of the cruelty of slavery and the creative measures taken to secretly transport and hide people from hunters.
Buxton National Historic Site & Museum features descendants of enslaved people from the Buxton community and provide tours and tell stories about the experiences of their ancestors.
The property has a:
- cozy little one-room schoolhouse, (build in 1861 and operated until 1967)
- log cabin
The Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum transports visitors along a historical journey from the 1800s to present day, highlighting:
- excellence achieved by community members in various disciplines such as the arts, medicine, sports and music
- struggles and successes during the fight for civil rights
There’s also an archives area where local residents can learn about their ancestors.
Keep an eye out for:
BME (Black Methodist Episcopal) Freedom Park, located outside of the Black Historical Society & Mecca Museum. There is a bronze bust of anti-slavery activist and Canada’s first Black woman newspaper publisher, Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
“North Star”, a barn quilt, is also located in the BME Freedom Park and is part of the Thames River Barn Quilt Trail. It honours of the celestial guide used as a compass to direct brave men and women northbound where a conductor from the Underground Railway would be waiting to lead them to freedom.
Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History is a historical site named after the courageous Josiah Henson, who fled slavery with his wife and four children in 1830 and settled in Dresden. His legacy includes:
Josiah Henson embarked on many heroic trips as a conductor of the Underground Railway and guided over 100 people to freedom.
As a community leader, he helped create the Dawn Settlement, a community where newcomers could receive an education and enroll in training programs to become more self-sufficient.
Niagara Bound Tours offers customized historical tours that trace various little-known gems and storytelling about the legacy of freedom seekers in the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort Erie and St. Catharines. Among many things to learn about on the trip:
- Black cemeteries
- Black historical sites
- Civil rights sites
Despite a large bounty on her head for her capture, famous anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman risked crossing the border as an Underground Railroad conductor several times. She became known as "Moses" because of her bravery in bringing people to freedom and made St. Catharines her home for 10 years. Commemorative sites include:
- Salem Chapel was the church where Harriet Tubman worshipped.
- A statue of Harriet Tubman is located at the Harriet Tubman Public School, located close to Salem Chapel.
Griffin House sits on a hilltop overlooking the Dundas Valley and is significant for several reasons:
- The property was purchased in 1834 by a former enslaved man from Virginia named Enerals Griffin.
- The house stayed in the family until it was sold to the Hamilton Region Conservation Authority in 1988.
- Griffin House was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2007.
- It was more elaborate than the traditional dwellings in early Black settlements and was situated in a predominantly Euro-Canadian community.
Many former enslaved people living in the southern regions of Ontario migrated to northern regions in search of economic opportunities and out of fear of being kidnapped by bounty hunters, who were actively recapturing people close to the US border.
Sheffield Park Museum was established by Howard Sheffield, whose family tree goes back many generations in Canada, and continues to educate:
- The museum creates awareness of Black History in Canada.
- Howard Sheffield’s nieces Sylvia and Carolynn Wilson continue their late uncle’s legacy as curators of the museum.
- Members of their community have donated various cultural artifacts to the museum.
- The objects in the museum's collection range from memorabilia and vintage dolls to various types of quilts, human chains and more.
The Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1849 and was designated a National Historical Site in 2000. Of note:
- Located at the corner of Line 3 North and Old Barrie Road West, it’s the oldest log building built by African Canadians.
- Since it was constructed entirely of wood, over the years the church fell into a serious state of disrepair and required extensive and expensive restorations.
- Fortunately, concerned members of the community have collected funds for its restoration and preservation.
Note: Although the church is not open to the public, the grounds are open to the public.
Learn more about Black History in Ontario
In their unwavering pursuit of freedom, settlers faced harsh weather conditions and experienced racial discrimination. Their struggle for equality and human dignity is a powerful story and their legacy today is a testament to their unbreakable spirit. Further resources include:
Ontario Black History Society is based in Toronto and is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Black History and heritage.
Slavery to Freedom is a key program of The Ontario Heritage Trust that documents this important chapter in Ontario’s history.
Download the On this Spot app to take a virtual tour of Black history in Southwestern Ontario
More about Black history in Ontario
Last updated: January 31, 2023