Footsteps to Freedom along the Underground Railroad continued into Canada, the land of freedom for so many seeking freedom from oppression. Just across the Detroit rivers was a land although cold in the winter, it if offered a chance for self-reliance. Freedom Seekers still were not completely free. Slave catchers routinely travelled across that river to take the owner’s property back south.
But it is amazing that there were several distinct communities that still exist thanks to the hard working families and the government of the country who took charge of preserving the history.
One of them, the town of Buxton, stands pretty much as it did when so many were educated, built their own businesses, farmed, and lived life to the fullest.
The school bell rings, the students line up, girls on the left and boys on the right as they enter through the cloakroom of the school. Then the lesson begins, the sentence is dictated and the teacher who teaches the full complement of grades, checks the student’s black slates. The teacher had to be female and not married and she only made a pittance of a salary. That didn’t matter, she was taken care of and a very respected member of the community. Shannon Prince, who carries on the family tradition of many generations, spoke to educators on her experience growing up in the school. “We were taught on a high education level and expected to learn,” she told them. As she gave dictation and word problems it was difficult for them to keep up. Then she told them it was a fourth grade lesson.
The town founded by a minister who inherited several slaves from an family estate, did not believe in enslavement and decided to prepare them to leave North Carolina and move to Canada to have a better life. He taught them how to survive the weather and then petitioned the government to allow his experiment. Rev. King is beloved and respected. He put in place Canada’s first planning laws. He gave setbacks for the houses how they should look, their size as well has how many rooms and that each would have vegetable and flower garden landscaping. He also asked that no one take a job, but to make their own way with their business so they would be self-reliant. After the Civil War, many left Buxton to go find family that had been left in slavery.
That visit came to a close the educators were amazed to understand the importance of this compelling history. On to the next location, some settlements moved far into the country for protection. One of those settlements included Josiah Henson. Henson is the person Harriet Beecher Stowe based her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin on. His third cabin has been restored, a church from the time period has been installed, and a barn joined the new Interpretive Center upgraded by Canadian Government. They have poured millions of dollars in the country’s historic sites. There are many that deal with the Underground Railroad. Waiting to greet us is the friendly face of Brenda ----- and Stephen Cook who run the site. Inside unfolds the story of a man who had no education but founded the country’s first Vocational school. Henson dictated his autobiography to a journalist and had him read back to him what he had said. It was that autobiography that Ms. Stowe read to help formulate the story that President Lincoln blamed for the Civil War. Now when you think of Uncle Tom, that is a negative that was perpetuated for 85 years by minstrels who blackened their faces and shuffled their feet while entertaining audiences across the nation. Cook says it is their desire to tell the real story of Josiah Henson and the things he did and not what someone made up. On display are the china given to him by Queen Victoria. One of his fundraising activities was to go to England with items made by his students. It was their exquisite hand-crafted items that caught the eye of Queen Victoria.
Because so many know the story of Harriet Tubman and for a long time there were educators who wanted to see the more well known route the group travelled to the Niagara region of Canada to visit Harriet Tubman’s church in St. Catherines. Docent Leslie Wells a descendent not only shares the story of Tubman but many others, including the Dett Chapel (just a few blocks from Niagara Falls) named after ------Dett, a famous composer of classical music, was visited, the family history is connected to San Bernardino where some of his descendent live. Rev Anthony Burns, a man who’s arrested because he ran away from slavery sparked a riot. He was finally free but the fight for his life took its toil and he died at an early age. His grave is protected with a plexi-glass cover and tended by a group of developmentally disabled adults. The flowers change with the seasons.
At the end of the visit the crossing, the place where Josiah Henson crossed the chilly fast moving water into Canada from Buffalo, New York. Along the way the suspension bridge that Harriet Tubman crossed and of course Niagara Falls are very important to the story of the War of 1812, as Canadians boast a battle that they won.
Our next installment will be the city of Rochester, NY and the home of Frederick Douglass. Footsteps to Freedom is co-sponsored by the National Parks Network to Freedom program, Southwest Airlines, Office of Education from San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and Black Voice Foundation. Kenley Konnection is the travel booking agent.
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