Plea for Emigration

by M. Shadd,
144 pages,
ISBN: 1551280531

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Hidden Border Crossings
by Norman Ravvin

Josiah Hanson House
Desolation of Woodward Ave.

A decade before the outbreak of the American Civil War, a Delaware-born woman named Mary Shadd published a rather unusual guide for prospective U.S. immigrants to Canada. At the same time that Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie were informing British settlers about the joys and hardships of the Ontario bush, Shadd wrote her guide for the free blacks of the American north, whose liberty was newly threatened by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This law entitled slave owners to hunt down escaped slaves in any American jurisdiction. Shadd's A Plea for Emigration; Or, Notes on Canada West drew a careful portrait of the "thirty thousand colored freemen of Canada", holding them up as an example of black well-being and accomplishment.

Mary Shadd's childhood experiences taught her first-hand about the difference between a black life led in America and one led in Canada: she was the daughter of parents whose Delaware home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. These two words conjure images of rolling stock on subterranean tracks, but quite simply, the Underground Railroad was made up of a network of abolitionists, Quakers, and influential free blacks who shuttled escaped slaves from as far away as the deep South to safe houses in the northern free states before spiriting them across the border to Canada. The "railroad" had stockholders who supported it financially; it had conductors who drove carts full of passengers or manned river boats; it had stations, which consisted of an abolitionist's home or a barn; and of course it had cargo-many thousands of people who found their way from as far away as Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Philadelphia.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Canada looked, to American blacks, like a very unique society, with its laws banning the introduction of slavery and the absence of an economic system based on the agricultural plantation that relied on unpaid labour. Shadd's guide was not written for the most desperate of American blacks, who might cover a hundred miles of Ohio forest by night; it's the sort of book one can imagine free black families studying after dinner as they weighed their future in a slave-holding society. A Plea for Emigration is remarkable for its lack of comment on the state of American slaves. In Shadd's view, the Fugitive Slave Act made life in America "dangerous in the extreme" for all blacks. And back-to-Africa organizations, led by both well-meaning blacks and cynical whites, put the likelihood of black assimilation in the U.S. under further threat. Shadd, who arrived in Toronto in 1856, tells her readers that rumours of Canada's frigid climate are overstated, but more importantly, that it was no fairy tale that the country offered blacks liberty in a way that American society never would. She wants her readers to consider the comfort with which she'd joined large white congregations in Toronto's churches. Her philosophy is one of self-reliance: "With an axe and a little energy," she argues, "an independent position" will be available to any newcomer. At times, her enthusiasm for Canada is misleading. With an almost utopian fervor, she exclaims that in Canada, "no man's complexion [affects] his business".

The Mercury Press' new edition of Shadd's A Plea for Emigration is the guide's first appearance in print since it was brought out by a Detroit print jobber in 1852, at the price of twelve and a half cents a copy. The new edition recovers, for Canadian readers, the history of an important suffragette: Shadd was one of the first women to travel on the Canadian lecture circuit; she edited-under a male pseudonym-an important abolitionist newspaper; and in her later years, having returned to post-Civil War America, she agitated for the women's right to vote. But if we read Shadd's guide with the Ontario landscape in mind, with an eye to discovering the broader historical currents that formed her, A Plea for Emigration can be seen to reveal a deeper, largely forgotten entanglement between black America and Canada.

Most of what Canadians know about the history of black North Americans is viewed through the prism of events that took place in the United States: the Civil War, Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the fury of riots that destroyed the inner cities of Detroit and Newark, leaving abandoned blocks that still crumble as they stand.

But whether we think about it or not, Canadians are intimately entangled with the heritage of black Americans. Particularly in southwestern Ontario, along a 180-mile stretch from Windsor to Brantford, black settlement has left an important mark on the landscape and local culture. The arrival of black settlers in the area is, in part, an American story-the story of tens of thousands of slaves who fled north in the first half of the nineteenth century. At no other time-aside from the flow of draft dodgers to Canada during the Vietnam War-have Americans sought a Canadian refuge with such fervor and near-religious yearning.

The outcome of this influx, both the way it changed many Ontario communities and its low profile in our history books, is a purely Canadian tale, which I set out to learn by driving a route the tourism department of Ontario's short-lived NDP government dubbed the African-Canadian Heritage Tour. The route covers an area from the Detroit-Windsor corridor, well into southwestern Ontario, and it represents one of the first sustained efforts by the Ontario government to raise the profile of black history, and to encourage schoolteachers and tourists to recognize that history's crucial role in southern Ontario's collective identity. The sites chosen to make up the tour focus on the period between 1815 and 1860, when fugitive slaves came to Canada in the greatest numbers. It was toward the end of this period-in 1850-that Mary Shadd settled in Windsor, a key point of entry for blacks fleeing the U.S.

While Shadd's book reflects a unique aspect of black history at mid-century (an orderly emigration of working- and middle-class blacks to Canadian centres, with the intention of assimilating into mainstream society), the African-Canadian Heritage Tour reflects a somewhat different, more embittered history: the flight of escaped slaves into the unknown north. But as I visited the churches, museums, and restored safe houses that mark the Tour, it became clear that Mary Shadd's legacy haunts much of the region's history.

Each stop along the African-Canadian Heritage Tour marks a site where fugitive blacks settled. The most famous black American-turned-Canadian of the nineteenth century is Josiah Henson, a Methodist preacher and entrepreneur who, in 1830, arrived in the area where the town of Dresden is located today. Henson's Dawn settlement-twenty miles east of the American border-predated the founding of Dresden by thirteen years, and his establishment of a vocational school for fugitive slaves, as well as the beginnings of a self-sufficient black colony, make him one of the area's early pioneers.

Mary Shadd had grave doubts about the kind of "exclusive" community Henson built; anything that smacked to her of segregationist ideals seemed to replicate the black experience of disenfranchisement in America. To her mind, the tendency among Canadian blacks to join all-black churches or to accept government funding of special black schools would only help guarantee an isolated future for their children. In the same way, she approved of Henson's Dawn settlement as long as it did not "exclude whites from [its] vicinity".

At Dresden today, Henson's great-great-granddaughter, Barbara Carter, is the director of an impressive interpretation centre and museum dedicated to the memory of Henson's escape from slavery and his accomplishments in founding the Dawn co-operative settlement. I met Carter in one of the museum's restored buildings-a 140-year-old pioneer church, which contains the organ and pulpit from the sanctuary where Henson preached. Though the building has the spic-and-span neatness of a restored antique, its square nails and rough walnut siding recall the appearance it would have had when Henson's followers were first clearing the land.

The first thing Carter and I had to sort out was why her museum had two seemingly interchangeable names: The Reverend Josiah Henson House and Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. It's commonly thought that Henson's life formed the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, though there's no hard proof that Barbara Carter's great-great-grandfather ever met Beecher Stowe. Carter acknowledges that it has been difficult serving the Canadian historical record about Henson's life when a fictional record by a rather melodramatic American writer holds the public's attention. Many of the details of her great-great-grandfather's experience are forgotten in the shadow of Beecher Stowe's fictional account, in particular his accomplishments at Dawn.

"But we have a lot of documentation," she says. "We know from Mrs. Stowe's own words that Josiah Henson was the man she had in mind when she created her Uncle Tom.

"When Josiah Henson arrived here," Carter tells me, "this was virgin ground. We can hardly imagine, because we have none of the forest around us. He helped establish the British American Institute, a vocational school, and with the support of New York Quakers, land was bought for black settlers to farm. At its height, Dawn boasted 500 inhabitants. 1,500 acres were planted with tobacco, corn, and oats. A small mill went into production, processing the wood felled in the surrounding walnut forests. Henson took some of the walnut board the mill produced to London when he visited the Crystal Palace and Windsor Castle to meet with Queen Victoria."

It's difficult to imagine the Dresden area as a woodlot supporting a saw and grist mill. Today the flat land on the banks of the Sydenham River is as domesticated as any farm country in Canada. There are a few lone stands of walnut trees down the road toward Chatham, but trees are sparse, left in a few spots to mark the edges of property. A hard wind blows ceaselessly across the surrounding sections of unprotected cropland.

Carter's industrious commitment to her museum helped secure a $1.2 million grant from Ontario's NDP government. The museum has a modern, high-tech feel, and visitors move from gift and book stores to exhibition rooms to the well-preserved buildings gathered in a fenced yard behind the centre. But the question of who Carter's great-great-grandfather was, and where his story fits in terms of black Canadian history, is not simple to answer. The increasing association between Henson and Stowe's Uncle Tom has distracted people from Henson's Canadian accomplishments, turning him, rather strangely, from a Canadian pioneer and visionary who encouraged vocational skills and economic independence among his followers, into a moralizing fictional character in an American novel. Historians question whether Beecher Stowe had heard of Henson when she was writing her book, and suggest that she may have latched onto his story later, relying on the narrative she read in his autobiography as proof that she was a reliable informant on slave matters. Even Carter admits, when pressed, that Beecher Stowe's interest in slavery was not necessarily founded on purely humanitarian concerns.

North Buxton, a tiny blink-of-an-eye place twenty miles south of Dresden, bills itself as one of the only pre-Civil War black settlements in Canada still in existence. The townsite is twenty minutes by car from the Lake Erie shore, and the township roads leading into North Buxton run alongside fields of wheat, corn, and soybeans. In its heyday, there were black-owned farms running all the way from the town to the lake. Nowadays black families still own farms and businesses in the area, but the most notable markers of black life are the Centennial Museum and the old schoolhouse, which is itself a museum. The local school board brings kids from the surrounding towns to hear how fugitive slaves populated what was originally bush and oak forest.

The North Buxton Centennial Museum has none of the flash and sparkle of Barbara Carter's interpretation centre. A low-slung building funded with federal money at the time of Expo 1967, it houses a haphazard collection of artifacts and photographs, which manage to convey the texture of the homesteading life fugitives led more effectively than a new, more polished exhibition can. There's the usual potpourri of estate leftovers: buttons, irons, canes, bibles, eyeglasses, and family photographs. The museum's dusky interior approximates an overstuffed living room of a prosperous turn-of-the-century North Buxton citizen. Included in the collection are the Shadd family papers-among which is a ledger that belonged to Shadd's father and that lists every pair of shoes he sold to customers from Delaware to Canada. The museum also holds the subscription receipts for the Provincial Freeman, the influential abolitionist newspaper Shadd edited.

"We have the original Josiah Henson," I'm told by Alice Newby, who curates the Buxton Centennial Museum. At first, I think Newby is talking about some bit of pickled remains in a jar, but she points at a photo of a familiar, full-bearded face which hangs in the late afternoon gloom.

"That was the original," she tells me. "It hung in his house. He was married twice. He left things to his wife and their kids intermarried with people here. And that's how the photo came to Buxton. Dawn's gone," she explains as she leads me into her office, a sunlit, book and paper-cluttered room at the back of the museum. "I'm forty-one years old. There hasn't been anything there since I've been alive. You go down the base line road and at one time that was all black farms. Now ninety per cent of that's gone.

"When people refer to places like Buxton as the northernmost terminus on the Underground Railroad, I say: Once you'd crossed the Detroit River, once you'd come across the water, you were free. This was a haven for escaped slaves. Slaves came here and made a life for themselves."

Newby's family-prosperous, educated people who helped slaves from the States-came to the North Buxton area in the mid-nineteenth century and settled on the outskirts of what was then called the Elgin settlement. Like Henson's Dawn, Elgin was a refuge for fleeing slaves, where they could join a co-operative and economically viable black community. Founded by the white abolitionist, Reverend William King, Elgin lasted longer and was more successful than Henson's Dawn. King raised money through his Presbyterian contacts, from prominent blacks, and among forward-looking philanthropists in Toronto and Montreal. By the 1850s, when Shadd was writing, the settlement consisted of nearly 9,000 acres. But again, it was the community's exclusivity that led Shadd to reject its principles. Since it was only willing to sell land to fugitive slaves, she felt it discriminated against free American blacks who had been put in danger by the Fugitive Slave Act.

Many of the people who settled at Buxton went back to the United States once the north won the Civil War, just as Shadd did.

"If you look at census records," Newby explains, "you'd see that a lot of the fugitives who came up had left family behind. So after the War they went back. It didn't necessarily have to be wives and children. Some went back to find their parents. They felt that they should take their talents-the education they'd acquired here-back home to help with reconstruction."

This southward exodus has made North Buxton more of a focus of pride and interest among Americans than among black Canadians.

"There's lots of families in the States who know one thing," Newby explains, "that their people came to Canada. And the objects and documents in this museum, along with the church and the schoolhouse are very important to them. These were built by people who were slaves. You know, hammering the nails. People on tours will walk up to the church wall and touch it. They can barely believe it was built by runaway slaves. I had one woman tell me she couldn't believe she was walking where runaway slaves had walked."

Though slavery and the Underground Railroad are American phenomena, there is a real absence of historical markers in the U.S. related to the paths taken by fugitive slaves to freedom.

"We know how the Underground Railroad worked down there," Newby explains. "Where they would cross and who helped the fugitives. We know because we have letters and other documents. But think about it: everything on American ground had to be hidden. So we can say, `This might have been a station on the Underground Railroad.' We can guess what trap doors and hidden rooms were used for. But it's in Canada, in places like North Buxton, where we've got the actual artifacts. The physical stuff that conjures up what those people went through."

As I travelled the African-Canadian Heritage Route between Toronto and Windsor, and drove up and down the township roads between the Erie beaches and the flat farmlands around Dresden, my conversations with people often circled back to the way mainstream Canadians dealt with growing numbers of black citizens in southwestern Ontario towns.

In Chatham, a small city on the banks of the Thames River, I talked with people at the First Baptist Church, whose earliest founders were deeply committed to the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad. Virginia Travis, the church's de facto archivist and historian, ushered me into a wood-panelled sitting room where we were joined by one of the community's elders, a woman who introduced herself rather warily as Ruby. The room was filled with buttery afternoon light that fell through glazed windows. We were surrounded by shelves packed with mementoes from the Church's years of involvement in what Virginia Travis called the country's first freedom movement. Among these, she pointed out a table and chair said to have been used by anti-slavery crusader John Brown on one of his secretive visits to Chatham.

In the mid-1850s, the Provincial Freeman was published in Chatham, and though Shadd had moved to the area, she had given up the editorship after her decision to stop using a male pseudonym brought a rush of negative public reaction. While in Chatham, she hosted John Brown and sat in on meetings of the Chatham Convention, which made secret plans to attack a Virginia Armory in the hope of inciting a slave rebellion. The attack was a disaster and led to Brown's execution, but it did hasten the Civil War. Shadd helped one of Brown's compatriots write a memoir of these events, called A Voice From Harper's Ferry.

In so many of her endeavours, it was Shadd's skills as a journalist that made her voice memorable and powerful. In A Plea for Emigration, she consults almanacs for information on Canadian soil, includes a graph of average temperatures in winter and summer, provides the exchange rates between U.S. and Canadian currency, and excerpts liberally from the "Law of Succession in Upper Canada", which ensured black citizens' rights to pass on property to their next of kin.

To complete my travels on the African-Canadian Heritage Tour, I drove the most southerly leg of the 401 into Windsor, through the city's centre, and entered downtown Detroit through the Peace Tunnel. When I emerged on Jefferson Avenue, it was early evening, and crowds were gathering at Joe Louis Arena for a game. The big buildings cluster down by the shore, and in a matter of a few blocks, as I headed up Woodward Avenue, I found myself surrounded on both sides by burnt-out ruins-the aftermath, you might say, of slavery, as race war really did break out on the streets of Detroit in July of 1967, set off after white policemen raided a black after-hours club. Five days of rioting, fire-setting, and looting followed, destroying the heart of the city. I passed boarded factories and warehouses. Blocks of businesses abandoned three decades ago, with hand-painted signs, wrought-iron grates pulled down over show windows, the odd front door broken open to reveal a showroom stuffed full of trash, mountains of newspaper and food tins and discarded plumbing fixtures. Traffic runs up and down Woodward as if this specacle were nothing out of the ordinary. There is the odd outpost of surviving commerce-a liquor store that accepts food stamps, bars with small groups of customers standing out front on the sidewalk drinking beer out of plastic cups. Not far from here, at the corner of Gratiot Street and Woodward, there was an Underground Railroad station where fugitive slaves hid before they made the last leg of their journey across the Detroit River to Windsor or nearby Amherstburg. And the printer of the first edition of Shadd's guide to black emigration had his office not far from here.

A century and a half ago, the two sides of the Detroit River held distinctly different possibilities that no American or Canadian could overlook. That's still true today, since Canadians can flee the wiped-out precinct along Woodward Avenue at Sproat and Edmund Streets, the bizarre dereliction of the flophouses on Erskine and Bagg. But then again, how separate are we? How central is our legacy-the legacy of tens of thousands of fugitive slaves who found a haven in towns like Sandwich, Colchester, Collingwood, Chatham, Buxton, and Dresden? Did these events create a consciousness in Canada of its black citizens that included an awareness of the meaning Canada held for their ancestors? The reappearance of Mary Shadd's A Plea for Emigration gives us an opportunity to recover some sense of this history, which is comprised of both hope and heartbreak, of the realization of the difference between two nations and the inevitability of shared experience. 

Norman Ravvin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His most recent books are A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory and Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish.


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