Underground Rail Road by car

He's had them imagine themselves in chains, and showed them a diagram of a slave ship they might have been crammed into. He's made them think about the hell of slave life. The eighth-graders on a class trip from their Chicago-area school, listen more or less attentively as Bryan E. Walls takes them on a tour of the homestead that's been in his family for more than a century, a homestead that's intimately linked to this story.

Portly, bespectacled and goateed, with a cap proclaiming him a "conductor" in the Underground Rail Road, Walls wields a megaphone to be heard as he implores the teens to "rise up spiritually and walk with us as we continue our journey from slavery to freedom." Now he stands next to a cart piled with timber, something that might have been hitched to a horse in the mid-1800s. He dramatically snaps away a rear cart panel to reveal that there, beneath the stacked wood, are three dark-skinned mannequins. The kids gasp.

"Some of your ancestors may have rode in such a wagon, so you could get a good education," says Walls, a dentist by profession, his voice crackling in the megaphone. Escaping slaves might have hidden not just beneath wood, but beneath manure to throw off tracking dogs, he says, eliciting another gasp. Traveling to freedom meant chasing after the North Star by night and hiding in the woods to sleep by day. It might mean "drinking rainwater from hoofprints of cattle." And then Walls conducts them down a damp dirt path through the woods, pointing out signs that symbolically mark off, for instance, the 833 miles from Alabama to freedom. The recorded sounds of barking dogs, as if in pursuit, play in the background.

This is the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum, a private attraction built around the Walls family story, beginning with John Freeman Walls and his wife, Jane King Walls, Bryan's great-great grandparents.

In the story of the star-crossed lovers Bryan Walls tells in his "documented novel," The Road That Led Somewhere, Jane was a white widow whose husband, Daniel, had been a lifelong friend of his slave John. On his deathbed, Daniel had freed John and asked him to take care of Jane and their children. When "taking care" turned to love, even though John was ostensibly free, John and Jane wound up fleeing for their lives like fugitives, Jane's children by David in tow. They had more children, including Bryan's great-grandfather, after arriving here where John built a log cabin that still stands (though unfortunately it couldn't be open this day because of recent raccoon invasion). But there's also a family graveyard and several other buildings, including a place where you can watch a 700 Club re-enactment of the Walls story.

Several times, Bryan Walls notes that the Underground Rail Road was the first time that blacks and whites of different faiths worked together for freedom and justice, with sympathizers hiding and helping the escapees along the way.

"This history belongs to all of us," he says.

The Walls site is just one of a half-dozen or so southern Ontario sites within a couple hours of the border that mark the exodus of escaping slaves and allied freedmen who saw this part of Canada as a sort of biblical Canaan. The acquisition of new slaves was banned here in 1793, and slavery across Canada ended in 1833 by act of the British Parliament, decades before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. You can tour a couple sites in an afternoon, squeeze in most, if not all, in a couple days — or extend the historic site-seeing even further with more distant sites such as Niagara-on-the-Lake and St. Catharines.

We actually began our trip on a Saturday afternoon in Windsor at Sandwich First Baptist Church. A marker there tells how the community of escaped slaves and freemen fired bricks of Detroit River clay to build the church in 1851. The gothic revival-style building remains open for service on Sunday, but we were lucky enough to find a workman to let us experience this modest, unpretentious place of worship with the original stain-glass windows coloring the light in a sanctuary ringed with the original wainscoting.

From the Walls site we drive roughly an hour to the outskirts of Chatham to overnight at Jordan House, an Edwardian country inn, built in 1900. Proprietor John Jordan, a fourth-generation owner, shares area lore and advice on matters from site-seeing to dining. Dressed in a chef's outfit, he serves up a breakfast of fruit plate, toast, bacon and eggs as you like them served in an ornate dining room. (Rates start at $89 Canadian.)

Sunday morning we visit two Chatham sites about 10 minutes away. Any other day of the week, we'd be able to see African-Canadian history displays in the W.I.S.H. Center near downtown, but there's still the historical marker outside commemorating the life of Mary Ann Shadd Carry, cited as the first black woman to edit her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, which she founded here in 1853.

A short walk down the street stands Chatham's First Baptist Church. We can hear the sounds of music and preaching inside, but we're too late to casually join in. A historical marker outside connects the site to the flashpoint of the U.S. Civil War. It was here that abolitionist firebrand John Brown held the last of a series of clandestine meetings to gather support for his raid at Harpers Ferry, W. Va. His hope was to trigger an African-American revolt and a provisional government for a new nation. And his travels among the industrious African-Canadians further inspired his dreams of an independent, egalitarian republic to replace the Old South.

The area's other major connection to the war is a half-hour's drive into the countryside at Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. To most, Uncle Tom is a) an epithet for black servility or b) the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, more talked about than read these days. But it was a best-seller of, literally, biblical proportions when its 1852 publication boosted anti-slavery sentiments in the North. Tom was built, in part, on the real-life Rev. Josiah Henson and his earlier book The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly a Slave.

Henson's story, both in the book and as laid out in the museum — the most elaborate of the sites we visited — is epic. He did pass up some crucial chances to escape slavery and even free others. But he eventually fled on the Underground Rail Road along with his wife, Nancy, and four children. He later returned to the South to lead others to freedom and, here in Canada, founded the Dawn Settlement. It was a place where refugees could learn trades, farm and work in sawmills and other industries.

Henson's life is recounted in a video presentation and an elaborate exhibit that puts his story in the context of slavery and the Underground Rail Road. His likeness sits serenely with that of Nancy standing by, in his former home. That house is alongside the church where he preached, the settlement sawmill, another period house and a cemetery with the Henson family plots.

About 30 miles away, another African-Canadian, the Rev. William King, founded the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, once a black community of more than 2,000. Curator Shannon Prince represents the sixth generation of her family here, though the community now numbers only about 100, both black and white. She takes visitors through Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. She lifts shackles from a glass case to show how they could lock around an ankle, one of the artifacts of slavery here. But more numerous are the artifacts of freedom: 19th century furniture, a chess board, a cut glass pitcher, Civil War era rifles, farm implements, directories of the businesses that once served the community, a small newsletter-size press that belonged to the abolitionist editor Shadd Carry, one of Prince's distant relatives. An original settlement log cabin is adjacent to the museum as are a cemetery, an 1866 church and an impressive one-room, 10-grade schoolhouse built in 1861 and used until 1967.

And although the community has shrunk, Prince says every Labor Day weekend, it's repopulated with homecoming events that bring thousands of descendants and tourists together to explore what once was.

Our final stop, in an hour and 15 minutes' worth of winding driving back toward Detroit, is Amherstburg, whose attractions include the restored Nazrey AME Church, a stone building erected by refugees in 1848. Next to it is the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre, closed now though a sign in the window says it will reopen this summer. Its collection documents one of the main Detroit River crossings of the Underground Rail Road and the free community that developed here.


For more detailed information on the Sandwich First Baptist, Walls, Uncle Tom's Cabin and North American Black Historical Museum sites, see visitwindsor.com. For more about Buxton, see buxtonmuseum.com. (Call ahead to confirm hours of operation if you plan to visit any of them.) The site chatham-kent.ca provides links to Jordan House and other area accommodations. The Underground Rail Road story is also recounted on this side of the border by institutions such as the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Henry Ford, Second Baptist Church and Historic First Congregational Church (Old First).

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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