CANADA’S UNCLE TOM’S CABIN
by Margaret Deefholts
The log cabin is crouched against the wind, its weathered timbers blurred by snow flurries. Along with a group of visitors, I try to imagine the man who once lived within its walls. His name was Josiah Henson and although his abode is located on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site” in Dresden, Ontario, the reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a symbolic rather than factual. The fictional Uncle Tom never lived in Canada, and his cabin would have been located on a plantation in Kentucky.
So what’s the connection between “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Henson’s Dresden home? Henson was Stowe’s inspiration for the character of Uncle Tom but unlike his fictional counterpart, Henson, his wife and children made a successful escape to freedom in Ontario. After the book became famous, he re-published his earlier autobiography, renaming it “The Memoirs of Uncle Tom.”
Photo 3 Josiah “Uncle Tom” Henson (Photo: Courtesy Uncle Tom Cabin’s Historic Site)
Henson, a white-bearded patriarch with piecing eyes, was a far cry from the passive, obedient “Uncle Tom” stereotype regarded with scorn today. Business entrepreneur, abolitionist and active ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad, he was a force to be reckoned with.
The Underground Railroad, as I discover, was neither a railroad nor an underground passage. It was the code name for a covert organization that helped thousands of desperate slaves on their long and dangerous journey to freedom in Canada.
From the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s about forty thousand slaves pinned their dreams to a banner of hope emblazoned with the words: “Follow the North Star to Freedom”. Some crossed the Detroit River under the cover of darkness into Amherstburg—and went on to settle in Chatham, Dresden and Buxton. Others crept into the Niagara region from Fort Erie.
Enduring the cold winter nights, and the ever-present terror of discovery by bounty hunters, the escapees trudged on, bringing with them their faith in God, their belief in Canada and pride in their African heritage.
And that pride still shines in the eyes of their descendents today.
The North American Black Historical Museum in Amherstburg, and the Heritage Room at the WISH Centre in Chatham are “stations” along the Underground Railroad tour. Both sites are staffed by descendents of fugitive slaves, who share folklore and heart-warming anecdotes handed down through the generations.
On display are photographs of ordinary people, as well as notable black citizens, musicians, sportsmen and war heroes. Quilts and banners, with Underground Railroad emblems adorn the walls and cabinets hold memorabilia from personal collections.
Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, whose family was among the town’s earliest settlers, talks about her ancestors who were traded like commodities in a bazaar. I flinch at the photograph of a whipped slave whose back is cross-stitched with raised welts.
“And, take a look at this,” Shannon says, putting on a heavy iron collar with vertical spikes. “This was a tool of punishment, and it was attached by a steel rod to shackles around a man’s feet, so he could hardly move.”
I’m taken aback to learn that Canada, too, was part of the slave trade in the 1600s. The practice was outlawed in the late 1700s and finally abolished in 1833. Racial prejudice, however, isn’t wiped out by the stroke of a legislative pen. Black settlers were often shunned by their Caucasian neighbours, yet they established themselves without fanfare, as teachers, preachers and workers in factories and shops. Small business enterprises mushroomed, churches flourished and a schoolhouse was built.
That sturdy little Buxton schoolhouse endured for just over a century—it was in use from 1861 to 1968. We walk across the Museum’s snow-patched yard to take a look at it. Old class photographs—including one of Shannon as a child—are engaging. So too are the geography notes on the blackboard, which appear to have been left un-erased for fifty years! The classroom itself seems soaked in atmosphere and memories—shadows of children bent over their books, the smell of a dusty blackboard and the squeak of chalk on slates.
After the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished in 1865, many blacks, perhaps yearning for familiar landscapes, warmer temperatures and re-establishing links with family and friends, returned to the southern U.S. For those who chose to remain in Canada, the Underground Railroad “stations” are links to a vanished past. For the rest of us it’s an unsung, yet poignant, part of Canadian history.
IF YOU GO:
For further information on the Underground Railroad Tours go to:
PHOTOS – As attributed below
1. The journey to freedom ended here. (Photo: Margaret Deefholts)
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