Thursday, 14 April 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This year is the sesquicentennial of the start of the American Civil War and I think that I’m going to do a set of posts on Canada’s involvement. I consider this practice for next year’s bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812. This post is on the Underground Railroad.
Nikko Burton, 10 used in a mock slave auction in an Ohio school
There seems to be a push in America to tag states rights as the proximal cause for the Civil War but I think it’s about slavery in spite of southern historical revisionists.  Pedagogical innovation has lead to slave auction re-enactments for U.S. schoolchildren. According to Time magazine:
“Jessica Boyle, a fourth grade teacher at Sewells Point Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia divided her class according to race and held a mock slave auction on April 1 as part of her lesson on the Civil War. She sent black and mixed race students to one side of the classroom and then allowed the white students to take turns buying them.”
Perhaps this was a bizarre April fool’s Day joke but would a teacher in France mark Bastille Day by having mock executions using a fake guillotine while the children’s mothers acted as sansculotte women spectators knitting socks. Slavery had been limited in Upper Canada which is known today as Ontario since the passage in 1793 of The Upper Canadian Act against Slavery and abolished in 1833. From 1820 to 1860 over 20,000 refugees from slavery in the states fled to Canada. I’m not going into detail about the underground railway in America except to say that it was a means of helping slaves escape from the southern plantations to safe havens in the north. One group which was a main enabler was the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers. The following is from Wikipedia:
“The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names “stations” and “depots” which were held by “station masters”. There were also those known as “stockholders” who gave money or supplies for assistance. There were the “conductors” who ultimately moved the runaways from station to station. The “conductor” would sometimes act as if he or she were a slave and enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation the "conductor" would direct the runaways to the North. During the night the slaves would move, traveling about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) per night. They would stop at the so-called “stations” or "depots" during the day and rest. While resting at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. Sometimes boats or trains would be used for transportation.”

Up to 1850 the number of slaves fleeing to Canada had been limited but then the Fugitive Slave Act was passed and this lead to a dramatic increase. Wikipedia again:

“Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made any Federal Marshall or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidivit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial this led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery as they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.”

Oro Twp. African Methodist Episcopal Church

During the War of 1812 a group of black men from a variety of locations formed a regiment called “Captain Runchey’s  Company of Coloured Men” to fight with the Loyalist militias and the British regulars to stop the Americans who had invaded Canada. A settlement was created in Oro Township (a few townships north of where I lived in the country) for the retired members of the regiment. The church was consecrated in 1847 and has been re-consecrated every year since 1947. Although this settlement was not directly connected to the railway it did become part of the inspiration after 1850.  I lived in the Township of West Quillimbury. The Townships of East Quillimbury and King (just south of me) were settled by Quakers from Pennsylvania who had been pacifists during the American Revolution, mistreated and moved to my area between 1801 and 1803 to escape persecution. They kept their connections to the American Quakers who were instrumental in the operation of the railroad and helped organize the Canadian portion.

East Quillimbury Quaker meeting house

I’m on my way to Canada
That cold and distant land
The dire effect of slavery
I can no longer stand
So long old Master
Don’t come after me
I’m heading north to Canada
Where everyone is free.

(underground railway spiritual)

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