I am honoured to join with citizens across Canada and specifically in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex in recognizing the incredible achievements and sacrifices made by outstanding Black Canadians. In honour of Black History month I would like to recognize Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden, Ontario. An incredible, historical account of the underground railroad and the contributions made by Rev. Josiah Henson to the abolition movement. I strongly recommend a visit to this museum and have included their contact information below. Many thanks to Shantale in my office who helped gather all the historical background.
History Upper Canada/Lambton-Kent-Middlesex:
Upper Canada became the only British Colony to authorize the restriction of slavery in 1793 (Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada) after the Attorney General, John White, passed an abolition bill prohibiting slavery and importation of slaves in Upper Canada as well as freeing children and preventing new enslavements. By 1800 most other British colonies in Canada ended slavery, and 33years later it was illegal throughout the British Empire (Slavery Abolition Act of 1833) and the abolition enforced. Shortly before the start of the Civil War, many slaves escaped to Canada using the quickest route to freedom from the US by passing in Essex Country as well as other Ontario towns and Lambton-Kent-Middlesex townships such as Dresden, Dawn, Wilberforce (now Lucan), and Chatham. By 1850, many black communities where solidly established in these areas and many more. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act was legislated in 1850, which allows slave owners to arrest escaped slaves anywhere in the US, even in the Free states. Canada was thus seen as a safe haven for those enslaved in the US, which consequently brought about the creation of the Underground Railroad (1840-1860).
Black Canadians contributed immensely in building strong communities of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex. In fact, they were crucial to various socio-economic, political and cultural developments. For instance, they cultivated land, created various religious, cultural and educational institutions. Furthermore, they founded political organizations and newspapers, as well as occupying various employments, professions and businesses to meet the need of their townships because they were, and still are, productive and responsible citizens. Additionally, black communities were vital for abolition movements and racial equality activities in Ontario. Unfortunately many black families experienced prejudice, discrimination and consequences of segregation. However, African Canadians overcame adversity and aimed to improve their communities for all by speaking out against social injustices and racial discrimination, which contributed significantly in establishing free, secure, prosper and righteous societies all Canadians enjoy today.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad (UGRR) was a clandestine network, based predominantly in Philadelphia, of former slaves and anti-slavery supporters aiding enslaved African Americans escape to freedom in Canada. Approximately 33,000 refugee slaves fled to Canada during the 20 years the UGRR was in operation, especially after the legislation of the aforementioned US Fugitive Slave Act. Railroad terminology was used as codes in order to keep the UGRR a secret. For instance, the term “cargo” or “passenger” was used to refer to escaped slaves, and “conductors” would help the fugitives along to different “Stations” (safe houses identified by lit candles in windows) and “lines” (routes travelled) in order to safely reach “the Promised Land” (Canada). Travel was frequently done during the night and was often quite dangerous (journey on foot, land, and boats across waterways).
Many Black fugitives arrived in the town of Chatham using the UGRR and successfully escaped capture from US slave owners. However, at times, some of these bounty hunters unlawfully entered Upper Canada in attempts to kidnap free African-Americans in order to return them to southern masters. In fact, former US slave, Joseph Alexander, was followed to Chatham by his former owner and bounty hunter. After hearing that the slave owner had arrived, the large black population of Chatham, including Joseph Alexander, gathered outside the Royal Exchange Hotel. Alexander was offered 100$ to go with his former owner and bounty hunter to Windsor. The crowd stopped the men from seizing Alexander after he refused the offer. The men were forced to leave Chatham, allowing Alexander to live freely. This incident was published in The Provincial Freeman Newspaper.
Dresden, Dawn and Lucan
A large majority of escaped US slaves entered the free land of Canada and settled in cities of Upper Canada (Ontario) such as Chatham and other rural areas near Lake Erie. Some escaped to and settled in communities like Dresden, Dawn and Lucan. Dresden, formerly known as Fairport, was created approximately in 1825 as a settlement for refugee slaves fleeing from the US to Upper Canada. The township, located north of Chatham, was renamed Dresden in 1845.
Dawn, much like Dresden, is located near the town of Chatham and was established as an all-black settlement for fugitive slaves. The township and the British-American Institute, an industrial training school for the black residents of Dawn, were founded and administered by former slave and Methodist minister Josiah Henson “Uncle Tom” in conjunction with many other abolitionists such as Hiram Walker and James Canning. Because enslavement deprived people from developing some necessary skills to become autonomous, the Institute and the Dawn settlement endeavored for Black people to build and improve on skill levels, before living in more integrated communities in the future.
The Wilberforce Settlement, now Lucan, was founded in 1830 by escaped residents of Cincinnati. They fled from the oppressive Black Codes in Ohio.
Uncle Tom’s cabin
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site commemorates the life of Rev. Josiah Henson (1796-1883) and recognizes his contributions to the abolition movement and his work in the Underground Railroad. The name Uncle Tom comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also known as the Harris House, is one of three historic buildings located on the aforementioned Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, located near the town of Dresden.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland, on June 15, 1789. He was trusted by his master to escort 21 other slaves to Kentucky, although he could’ve escaped, he believed in buying his freedom instead of escaping north where slavery had been abolished. On his way back to Maryland, Henson preached to earn enough money to buy his freedom. However, he was betrayed by his master and sold. Henson decided to run away with his family. He joined with the UGRR and reached Upper Canada (six weeks later) in 1830.
Henson played a key role in the UGRR movement as a conductor and founded the settlement of Dawn and the British-American Institute in 1842. With Henson as the spiritual leader of Dawn, the settlement was open to all regardless of color and was an area that promoted various industries. He helped improve the lives of Upper Canada’s black population and was a leader in the fight against slavery.
The Institute closed its doors in 1868 and Dawn disappeared. This was due in part by disagreements in the administration of the settlement and a dwindling population after many of the former slaves returned to the US to fight for the Union Army during the American Civil War. Henson stayed in Dresden until his death in 1883.
*Hours of operation (Uncle Tom’s Cabin):
School and group bookings available year round by appointment.
November 1, 2016 through April 30, 2017 – tours by appointment only; please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to schedule a tour.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site is pleased to launch a major new exhibit titled I’ll Use My Freedom Well. This world-class exhibit provides a new look at Josiah Henson and the Dawn Settlement and includes additional historical information based on the research of three leading experts in Black history in Ontario – Dr. Afua Cooper, Dr. Karolyn Smardz-Frost and Adrienne Shadd.
Adults – $7 29251 Uncle Tom’s Road
Seniors – $6 Dresden, Ontario
Students, aged 13-17 – $6 Canada
Children, aged 6-12 – $4.50 N0P 1M0
Children under 6 – Free
Family – $20
*For more information on Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, events and admission, visit www.uncletomscabin.org or call 519-638-2978.