A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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BREAKING THE ICE: The Mary Ann Shadd Story

When Mary Ann Shadd came to Canada from the United States she came by railroad. But unlike the flood of Black fugitive slaves who came to Canada via the Underground Railroad, Shadd travelled with her freedom rather than for it.

The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad but was a secret network of people, of safe houses, set up to help Blacks escape the slavery of several American states and move to free states, or freedom in Canada. The organization used railroad terms as codes to describe the actions of people who belonged to the network and helped fugitives along the way. For example, Mary Ann Shadd's family served as a "station," or transfer point, along the route to freedom. "Conductors" helped escaped persons by hiding them from being recaptured by their masters. Conductors moved their "passengers" or "cargo" from one station to another(1).

The Underground Railway started operating in the 1780s but did not become known by that name until the 1830s. In the USA, conductors were also abolitionists. They believed that slavery was wrong and should be abolished. Many of them belonged to Quaker and Methodist religious groups. Legend has it that the Quakers of Pennsylvania started the Underground Railroad(2).

As part of history, the Underground Railroad has been the object of much myth-making. Not nearly so many fugitives passed along, nor were there nearly so many whites involved, as is generally believed. Most fugitives slaves found freedom in states of the American North. Slaves that came to Canada number close to 30,000(3).

The railroad was at its peak between 1840-1860, especially after the passage of the US Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This law empowered slave hunters to pursue fugitives onto free soil and recapture them. And it resulted in several attempts to kidnap former slaves in Canada, and to return them to Southern owners(4).

One of the Underground Railway's most famous conductors was Harriet Tubman. She led more than 300 Black slaves to freedom in Canada and all of her passengers reached safety at her "station," called St. Catherines, in Canada. Harriet was so successful as a conductor that her life was threatened. A group of plantation owners put a price of $40,000 on her head but she was never captured(5).

Another conductor, Reverend Calvin Fairbank, left records of how he transported some of his passengers to freedom:

[In 1847] I guided toward the north star, in violation of the ...codes of Virginia and Kentucky. I piloted them through the forests mostly by night... girls dressed as ladies; men and boys as gentlemen or servants; men in women's clothes and women in men's clothes...on foot or on horseback, in buggies, carriages, common wagons, in and under loads of hay, straw, old furniture, boxes and bags...swimming or wading chin deep, or in boats or skiffs; on rafts, and often on a pine log. And I never suffered one to be recaptured!(6)

Travelling on the Underground Railroad, Black slaves embarked on a journey of enormous uncertainty and at high personal cost, for the chance, however slim, of freedom.

Endnotes

1,2,5,6 - The Black Canadians, Their History and Contributions
by Velma Carter and Levero Carter (Edmonton: Reidmore Books Inc., 1989).

3,4 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998).


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