There are many stories to tell when you think of the Underground Railroad. Whether it’s the story of escaping slaves looking for the light of freedom, or people lending their support on this arduous journey – what remains is a legacy of courage that has defined our province. -The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander, Chairman of the Ontario Heritage Trust
Close to 25 million people were purchased by European slaving powers and deported from their African homelands to work as slaves on the farms and plantations and in the factories and homes of whites in every new world society from Canada to Argentina.
In 1807 the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. This prohibited the transportation of slaves but did not abolish slavery. This only occurred with Britain’s Abolition of Slavery Act, which became law on August 1, 1834, and which completely abolished slavery throughout its empire, including Canada. Some Canadian jurisdictions had already taken measures to restrict or end slavery by that time. In 1793 Upper Canada passed the Anti-slavery act.
With the abolition of slavery, Canada became a safe haven for enslaved people in the United States. Over 30,000 Blacks made it safely to Canada via the Underground Railroad during the period prior to the American Civil War. The Underground Railroad was a secret network, of routes connecting safe houses and of people, free African Americans, sympathetic whites and First Nations people who assisted those in flight.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
One such person was Reverend Josiah Henson, a leader in the Underground Railroad community of southwestern Ontario. In 1841, Henson and his supporters purchased 200 acres of land to establish the British American Institute, a vocational school that provided refugees from slavery with the education and skills they needed to become self-sufficient in Upper Canada. The site, in Dresden, Ontario, is now known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.
Excerpted with permission from: “From Slavery to Freedom,” Heritage Matters, (Ontario Heritage Trust, August 2007).