Some blacks escaped the United States and headed for Amherstburg, Ont., by boat across the Detroit River. Some tried to swim in the quick-moving waters. Others walked across the river when it froze in the winter.
The exterior of the museum and the Taylor Log Cabin at the North American Black Historical Museum in Amherstburg, Ont. — Photo by The Canadian Press
All of them were looking for one thing — freedom.
In the 1850s, as many as 30 blacks a day sought to escape slavery by crossing the Detroit River for Amherstburg, said Terran Fader, the curator and administrator of the North American Black Historical Museum in Amherstburg.
“Amherstburg was the chief crossing point for the Underground Railroad,” said Fader.
She said it’s “a vital part of our history,” but it’s not something that everyone knows is associated with the town, which is about 30 kilometres from downtown Windsor.
Amherstburg was incorporated as a town in 1878 and has a population of just over 21,000 people. But the community was first settled in 1784 by the British and was a key site in the War of 1812 and the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. It’s also along the narrowest point on the Detroit River, between Canada and the United States.
Efforts to found the North American Black Historical Museum were spearheaded in the 1960s by Melvin (Mac) Simpson with fundraising carried out by members of the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The museum, incorporated in 1975 and opened in its present form in 1981, has a permanent exhibit on the main floor and travelling exhibits upstairs.
“You can actually see artifacts like shackles that actually restrained the slaves,” Fader said.
“One of the other popular artifacts we have is a lashing ring. We actually found that. It was in a tree. The tree had grown around it. That’s where they would tie the slaves up to actually lash them and that’s from Amherstburg.”
Fader said it may come as a surprise that there was also slavery in the town.
Slavery was abolished in Canada in 1833, decades before it was abolished in the U.S., so “that’s really the period, the ’30s through the ’60s, that we were the stop on the Underground Railroad,” she said.
The church, which sits next to the museum, was built by former slaves and free blacks in 1848. In 1999, the church was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It was the first black historical site in Canada, said Fader.
Attached to the museum is a log cabin, which Fader said has been on the site since about 1855.
“That’s a historic home, so it was lived in by a number of people through the years, including George Taylor, who was an escaped slave and he fought in the Civil War,” she said.
“The descendants (of the free slaves) actually donated most of the artifacts that are on display in the log cabin, so it’s really set up to look like the home of an escaped slave living in Amherstburg,” she added.
Fader said people are usually very moved when they visit the museum complex because they weren’t aware of the history.
“This isn’t something we all learned a lot about in school, which is surprising since it has such a strong connection locally, so people are often shocked,” she said.
“They say, ’I didn’t know there was slavery in Canada.’ That’s what I get a lot. People sometimes have a very strong emotional reaction. They actually need to take a step back. They find it a bit overwhelming and generally people find it very interesting.”
If You Go ...
- The North American Black Historical Museum is at 277 King St., Amherstburg, Ont., about 30 kilometres from downtown Windsor.
- The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission rates are $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors over age 65 and students or $25 for a family of five. Guided and self-guided tours are offered all year and can take one to two hours.
- Contact the museum at 519-736-5433, toll free at 1-800-713-6336 or online at www.blackhistoricalmuseum.org
- The website www.amherstburg.ca also has information on other attractions in the area, including Fort Malden National Historic Site of Canada.