Before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, the Canadian side of the Detroit River was a place of hope for African-Americans. The city of Windsor and the counties of Essex and Chatham-Kent were three of the final stops on the Underground Railroad—a clandestine route to help escaped slaves enter Canada.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 refugees made this passage safely, guided and cared for by men and women on both sides of the border. Some had to still be sheltered even after they arrived, to avoid being snatched by bounty hunters.
Today, these Ontario regions bring countless stories of bravery and humanity to life through powerful historical sites, moving landmarks and vibrant cultural centres that celebrate Black Canadians.
1. Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum, Chatham-Kent
“We felt our history was forgotten, so we started digging—and what a story Chatham-Kent has,” says 75-year-old Dorothy Wallace, president of the society’s and museum’s board. See the exhibits and learn about the Chatham Coloured All-Stars baseball team, and artist and sculptor, Artis Lane.
2. BME Freedom Park, Chatham-Kent
The centrepiece of this Chatham-Kent park is a bronze bust of 19th-century feminist and abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who was North America’s first Black woman to publish a newspaper and one of the first to earn a law degree at Howard University in the U.S. The park is located on the site of the first British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church in Canada.
3. Buxton National Historic Site & Museum , near Chatham
Abolitionist Rev. William King founded the Buxton Settlement, located about 15 minutes south-west of Chatham, as a haven for fugitive slaves and free Blacks. Visitors to the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum can practice their spelling and arithmetic within the original tin and buttercup-yellow-walled 1861 schoolhouse.
4. Amherstburg Freedom Museum, near Windsor
Amherstburg, a 30-minute drive south of Windsor, was an entry point for refugees to Canada, being just across the Detroit River from the U.S. Visitors can tour a hand-hewn log cabin, sit in a peaceful 19th-century stone chapel or explore the exhibits in the museum building. Special events are held throughout the year.
5. Sandwich First Baptist Church, Windsor
Freed slaves and free Blacks from neighbouring communities helped build Sandwich First Baptist Church—the oldest active Black church in Windsor. Families were hidden underneath the floor from bounty hunters after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Call ahead to request a tour of the 178-year-old church.
6. Tower of Freedom Underground Railroad Monument , Windsor
The bronze figures of African-Americans in the Tower of Freedom Underground Railroad monument near Windsor’s waterfront offer a sobering reminder of those who risked their lives seeking freedom in Canada. The monument was created by sculptor Ed Dwight.
[This story appears in the February 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine]