- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

NORTH BUXTON, Ontario — Philip V. Alexander, 85, lowered his long, lean frame into a small school desk in a three-room schoolhouse that could have been built by some of his ancestors, black slaves who escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

Mr. Alexander went to school here, at No. 13 Raleigh in North Buxton, in the middle of what was once the Elgin Settlement for fugitive slaves and freed blacks. His father was a teacher and principal at the school for 40 years. Like most of the 100 persons in the town and thousands in the area, Mr. Alexander knows his family's freedom in the Americas began only when they came to Canada.

One of his ancestors was a slave in Kentucky who escaped when a neighbor “put her on a boat and she crossed the river to Cincinnati” and from there came to southern Ontario, he said. Another ancestor “was an escaped slave, and he married a white woman.”

Grace Edwards of Toledo, Ohio, another visitor to the newly reopened heritage site, said, “My grandmother was brought up here at the age of 1 in 1867 and lived near here until she was an adult. She came up from Missouri. We're trying to find as much as we can about where they were before that, but there are no records. How many of them came together? Did she come with her mother, father, sisters and brothers? We don't know.”

Looking around at the rough wooden floor and simple furniture, Miss Edwards said her grandmother “could have been a student here.”

Like many of the 5,000 visitors at the 78th annual Homecoming Weekend of descendants of slaves who escaped to Canada, held Aug. 30 through Sept. 2, Miss Edwards and Mr. Alexander are sadly aware that their family line disappears into the foggy records of slavery and fugitives.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 aimed to keep America's slave and free states together in an irritable union, but its effect was to launch what New York writer Harriet Jacobs described as a “reign of terror” on American blacks.

The federal law supported by Southern and several Northern states gave federal agents virtually unlimited power to arrest, jail and deport back to slavery any black man or woman found to be a slave living in a free state or territory. The law was enforced without trial, without giving the accused any chance to testify, but with the proviso that the commissioners judging the cases were to be paid $10 if they ruled for the slave owner and $5 if they set the accused free.

The Underground Railroad the informal routes with safe houses that runaway slaves traveled from the South to free states and Canada sprang up around 1830, but the fugitive law spurred its growth. Whatever security blacks felt in the North was gone.

Indeed, during the Civil War, Union officials continued to enforce the law and return blacks to Southerners until the law was abolished in 1864.

In 1850, the law sparked an exodus of fugitive slaves and freed blacks to Canada. It is estimated that in the 1850s alone, while America moved toward war, more than 5,000 blacks came to Ontario. By the end of the Civil War, 20,000 to 40,000 had crossed into Canada.

Indeed, for fugitive slaves, Canada meant salvation.

Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, a Kentucky slave couple, thought they had reached freedom in Detroit, but when slave hunters found them in 1833, the local sheriff backed the hunters. Before the Blackburns could be shipped back to slavery, Detroit's first race riot erupted; local blacks stormed the jailers and helped the pair escape to Canada.

When Michigan's governor asked Canada to extradite the Blackburns, Canada refused. In the years that followed, Thornton Blackburn launched Toronto's first horse-and-carriage taxi service, becoming one of the city's wealthiest men and an abolitionist advocate.

Canada did more than just rebuff American efforts to extend its slave law across the border. An area of 9,500 acres in and around North Buxton was turned into a community for escaped slaves and free blacks. Unlike the empty American post-Civil War promise to give freed slaves “40 acres and a mule,” the Canadian actions made it possible for blacks to buy 50 acres of land at $2.50 an acre.

Ten-year terms were offered, but the pioneers were expected to clear the land, build their homes and establish themselves without charity.

“They were very much opposed to” handouts, explained Bryan Prince, one of the organizers of the Homecoming. “They believed for people to acquire independence and pride in what they have, they have to work for it. Also, there were a lot of naysayers arguing blacks were incapable of being successful.”

The Elgin Settlement, which numbered about 2,000 at its peak, was enormously successful. By the 1860s, it boasted factories, mills, a hotel, a bank, shops and services. Though its schools were open to anyone, most students were black. In slavery, blacks were forbidden to be educated, but once in Canada, young and old came to the tiny schools to liberate their minds.

The Rev. William King, a white abolitionist, founded Elgin in 1849 after inheriting slaves from his wife's Louisiana family. His settlement school graduates included a future U.S. senator; a judge of the Mississippi Circuit Court; Rep. James Rapier of Alabama; and one of the few black officers in the Union Army, Abraham Shadd, who was among 70 Elgin men who fought for the Union.

Though one of Canada's Fathers of Confederation, George Brown, helped build Elgin, racial discrimination was not uncommon. Verlyn Ladd remembered with pride her years teaching at No. 13 but also that it was one of the only teaching jobs she could get in 1939.

The Elgin school was one of “a very few schools that would hire people of my race. I was one of the fortunate people to be hired here,” she said.

Barry Brown is a Toronto-based free-lance writer who is working on a Civil War-era film script.

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