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1851 - Once Upon A City: A ‘Promised Land’ for slaves on the run

(Toronto and Oakville were among key Ontario’s key stop on the Underground Railroad)

Martin Luther King Jr. perhaps said it best. “Canada is not merely a neighbour of Negroes,” he remarked in 1967. “Deep in our history of struggle for freedom, Canada was the North Star.”

Mary Ann Shadd, Samuel Ringgold Ward, William Hubbard, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, Albert Jackson — these are but a few of the blacks who escaped slavery, or were born to fugitives who sought freedom by following the Underground Railroad and the North Star to the “Promised Land.”

They shaped the Toronto we know today: they published newspapers, served as the city’s first black councillor, founded Toronto’s first taxi company and became Toronto’s first black postman.

The Underground Railroad was a covert network of abolitionists aiding African-Americans in their escape from enslavement in the American South. The 1850 African Slave Act allowed slave catchers to pursue fugitives in the Northern U.S. states. This increased the number of freedom-seekers who touched onto Canadian soil before American slaves were emancipated in 1863.

Slavery was outlawed in Canada in 1833 and the Underground Railroad brought 30,000 to 40,000 fugitives to British North America (Canada). Between 1850 to 1860 about 15,000 to 20,000 escaped slaves reached Upper Canada.

But if Canada gave them freedom, it did not always offer acceptance. In one letter to The Toronto Times in 1857, Col. John Prince — then a prominent member of Ontario’s Legislative Council — let loose his venomous pen. Blacks were “necessary evils, only submitted to because white servants are so scarce,” he wrote.

But for every critic, there was support for those who relied on the good fortune of sympathizers to find freedom. Toronto proved a hotbed of abolitionist activity.

On Feb. 26, 1851 George Brown founded the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada in Toronto. The noted abolitionist was publisher of the Globe newspaper and later a Father of Confederation. Regular meetings of the Anti-Slavery Society were held at the St. Lawrence Hall, a Renaissance Revival style building at 157 King St. W.

On Sept. 10, 1851, prominent U.S. and Canadian abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, gathered here to attend the North American Convention of Colored Freemen. They debated how to end slavery and passed a resolution, calling the present day Ontario, “by far the most desirable place of resort for coloured people, to be found on the American continent.” (Jamaica came second.)

One of the convention attendees was Mary Ann Shadd, destined to become the first black newspaperwoman in North America. Shadd was born to free parents in Delaware, a slave state. Her parents’ home was a “safe house” stop along the Underground Railroad. Shadd settled in Sandwich (now Windsor) Ont. in 1851, and established a racially integrated school for black refugees. She went on to publicize the successes of black persons living in Canada through the Provincial Freeman, which encouraged blacks to immigrate to Canada.

The weekly anti-slavery newspaper was first printed on March 24, 1853 and was co-edited by Samuel Ringgold Ward, a well-known public speaker and escaped enslaved person living in Toronto. The paper was published in Windsor, then Toronto (1854 to 1855) and then Chatham. According to City of Toronto records, about 1,500 black people lived in Toronto at that time.

Brown helped launch the career of William Peyton Hubbard after Hubbard rescued Brown from drowning in the Don River. Hubbard was the first person of African descent on Toronto’s City Council. Hubbard, a baker by trade, was first elected in 1894, served on the council for 15 years and was responsible for passing almost 100 civic initiatives. He was born in Toronto to former American slaves, who had escaped from Virginia via the Underground Railroad.

In 1985, the Toronto Star reported on the first Afro-Canadian archeological excavation in Ontario, which would reveal the life of Toronto’s first cabbie. The dig was at the corner of Sackville St. and Eastern Ave., under the playground of the board’s oldest continuously functioning school at 19 Sackville St. (now Inglenook Community High School).

The site held the former demolished home of Thornton Blackburn and his wife Lucie. The Blackburns were slaves who escaped from Kentucky in 1831, settling in Toronto in 1834. The couple started the city’s first taxicab business — a red and yellow horse-drawn carriage that seated four.

The five-month dig, led by then Toronto Board of Education archeologist Karolyn Smardz, uncovered the fragile foundations of a horse barn, where the cab was stored, and such belongings as a pearl-handled pocket knife, brass pocket watch and simple jewelry.

Blackburn leased the then-rural property north of Eastern Ave. in 1834 and purchased it in 1842. By 1847, the couple owned six houses. The Blackburns paid it forward by offering living quarters to former slaves at a nominal rent. They also helped construct the Little Trinity Anglican Church, a Tudor Gothic building at 425 King. St. E., which is the oldest surviving church in Toronto.

Those who stayed briefly with the Blackburns in 1834 included Albert Jackson, an escaped child slave, and his family. Jackson became Toronto’s first black postman, as chronicled in Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007).

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