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Backstory and Context
Blacks in Canada Before the Civil War
By 1860, more than 200,000 Blacks could be found in Canada West (Upper Canada prior to 1841), most of whom had left the United States in order to escape either slavery or the restrictive life free Blacks were forced to lead even in the northern states in the years before the Civil War. While the free Blacks could emigrate on their own, most of the escaped slaves, known as ‘fugitives,’ arrived in Canada via the Underground Railroad which developed in the 1820s and 1830s. The Underground Railroad was a network of escape routes and sanctuaries manned by abolitionists, Quakers and former slaves, who provided food, lodging, directions and transportation. In some cases, fugitive slaves traveled as much as 1000 miles with little more than a compass and a loaf of bread.
In strictly legal terms, Canada West was a haven for Blacks, slaves and free. Although slavery was practiced within the province in the 17th and 18th centuries, the number of slaves remained small and a direct trade from Africa to Canada was never established. The Upper Canadian Act Against Slavery (1793) prohibited the importation of slaves into the province and by 1834, slavery itself was declared illegal throughout the British Empire. However, prejudice and racist attitudes persisted. The black population, including former slaves and free people of colour, dramatically increased following the United States Congress’ passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Act also required state and local authorities to assist in the return of escaped slaves.
While the Black population of Canada West greatly increased after 1850, there were already several Black settlements in southwestern Ontario, some of which had been specifically established to provide a home for escaped slaves. While many were short-lived, during the time they flourished, Black settlements were proof that former slaves could build successful lives for themselves, refuting claims to the contrary.