Exploring freedom’s crossroads
In the cornfields of Ontario, one of Canada's most significant Underground Railroad sights is tucked behind tall grass and a red metal fence.
Nobody would ever find you here.
But of course, that was the original point.
When former slave John Freeman Walls and his white wife escaped from North Carolina to Canada in 1846, they simply wanted safety and peace. They found it on these 20 rural acres, where they raised a family and built a cabin.
Now somewhat tumbledown and embraced by wildflowers and thistles, its only visitors this September afternoon are fluttering butterflies and one busload of Detroit tourists.
Yet I found the modest Walls Historic Site a touching remembrance of the power of the Underground Railroad. It's said that even civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks found solace at this place.
"It's nice to come here and say, oh, you reached the other side," says Norma Sales of Detroit, one of a group of Michigan travellers on a two-day tour to see spots in southwest Ontario that make up the Canadian half of the freedom tale.
Underground Railroad historical sites are plentiful in the US and especially in Detroit, one of the busiest crossing points to freedom. But in Canada, you can see the other half of the story - what happened to the estimated 30,000 people who crossed into southwest Ontario between 1834 and 1860. Black history is alive in Lakeshore, Amherstburg, Dresden, North Buxton and Windsor. Many fugitives who crossed in turn became key figures in the Underground Railroad.
The lessons these sites impart to visitors?
"Perseverance, hard work, doing the right thing - and don't give up," says Stewart McMillin, a Detroit tour guide who specialises in Underground Railroad tours, including sites in Canada. "There are so many stories here."
You can navigate your own personal driving trip of Undergound Railroad sites in southwest Ontario, all part of the Ontario Heritage Trust Slavery to Freedom circuit. Some are easy to find, like the North American Black Historical Museum in Amherstburg. Some are quite a drive from Detroit, like Uncle Tom's Cabin in Dresden, north of Chatham. Some, like the Walls site, would be totally off your radar if you did not know how to find it.
You also can take an organised tour. McMillin, who specialises in black history and Underground Railroad tours, puts together such tours once or twice a year. Gary Winston of Michigan Millennium Metro Tours plans to offer them several times next summer.
Sheridan Daniels of Detroit, who took a McMillin tour, says she had no idea so much black history was in southwestern Ontario. For instance, "I had heard of Uncle Tom's Cabin and read about it, but that's about it," she says. "I never had actually seen it before."
Josiah Henson escaped from his Kentucky slave master in 1830 and came to Canada. He later wrote an autobiography, which writer Harriet Beecher Stowe used as inspiration for "Uncle Tom's Cabin." That 1853 novel helped change US public opinion about slavery, although it later became controversial.
So one critical Underground Railroad stop in Ontario is in Dresden, where Henson started the New Dawn Settlement to help fugitive slaves start over in Canada. It turns out that the site's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is no rustic cabin, but a pretty nice house where Henson - whose life was a far cry from the pejorative "Uncle Tom" image - lived.
In beautiful Amherstburg, the small North American Black Historical Museum documents the history of those who crossed the narrow Detroit River near Belle Isle to freedom-but the museum is intimate enough not to overwhelm visitors. Nearby in Windsor, the Sandwich First Baptist Church has a trap door where people could hide when slave-catchers crossed the Detroit River.
Meanwhile, back at the John Freeman Walls site, tourists gather around a red "freedom bell" meant to be rung by arriving fugitives.
When John and Jane Walls arrived in 1846, they helped start the local Baptist church, which in turn helped other arriving escaped slaves gain land to farm. This was crucial in the dire years after 1850 when the US Fugitive Slave Act allowed runaway slaves to be arrested even in northern states like Michigan, forcing people to cross to Canada for safety.
Today, the Walls site has a railroad car that once was used as a small museum. A look through the dusty windows shows it in disarray.
Nearby is the Walls family cabin and several other sturdy-looking outbuildings. There is the family cemetery, where generations of Wallses are buried.
And there is nature's handiwork-the low arcing trees, the profusion of goldenrod, the genteel softening of this place, and the smooth gray weathering of handmade signs, one of which says: "Alabama: 833 Miles." It all speaks of lives that finally found peace.
FOUR CANADIAN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD SITES
John Freeman Walls Historic Site, Lakeshore, Ontario - 859 Puce Road (one mile north of Highway 401 exit 28.) Descendants of Walls founded this historic site to commemorate Walls' part in the Underground Railroad.
Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Dresden, Ontario - 9251 Uncle Tom's Road; off exit 101 on Highway 401. The house of Josiah Henson, the inspiration for the character Uncle Tom in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and also an abolitionist who helped settle other fugitives at his New Dawn Settlement.
North American Black Historical Museum, Amherstburg - 277 King St. Marks the town's vital role in transporting slaves to freedom across the Detroit River as part of the Underground Railroad.
Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, North Buxton - 21975 A. D. Shadd Road. One of the few remaining African-Canadian settlements still in existence, it's a thriving indicator of the Underground Railroad's enduring power.
CANADIAN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD TOURS
-Southfield-based Michigan Millennium Metro Tours will run small-group Underground Railroad tours at least twice a week from May 1 to October 2014 that will take you to sights in southwest Ontario.
-Detroit-based Stewart McMillin Tours will run a four-night Underground Railroad trip in Ontario October 23-27, 2014, stopping in or near London, Hamilton, Toronto, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.
-Follow the North Star Tour is a custom four- or five-day tour for groups of 20 or more of places in Detroit, southwest Ontario and Niagara Falls.