Sample text for From Midnight to Dawn : the last tracks of the underground railroad / Jacqueline Tobin with Hettie Jones.

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Chapter One

A new black consciousness arose in the decades after the War of 1812. Faced with increased discrimination and violence against them, blacks were no longer waiting for sympathetic whites to protect their interests, but began working actively on their own behalf. Vigilance committees were formed for mutual support and protection; black abolitionist newspapers appeared, representing the thoughts of many free blacks who did not want whites speaking for them. Fraternal organizations, such as the Prince Hall Masons, which had been in existence since the American Revolution, became even more prominent and proactive. When an “Underground Railroad” was laid, on the paths first trod by courageous forebears who had escaped without any white assistance, many of the conductors were free blacks. The term is believed to derive from the story of a young fugitive named Tice Davids, who in 1831 crossed the Ohio River, with his master following in a boat close behind. Supposedly, when Davids reached the Ohio shore, he disappeared and his master could not find him. The master returned to his home in Kentucky, claiming that Davids must have escaped by way of an “underground railroad.” (The railroad metaphor continued, as helpers eventually were called “conductors,” fugitives became “parcels” and “passengers,” and safe houses were referred to as “stations.”)

Black emigration, an issue since the early nineteenth century, was now being discussed and redefined by blacks who wanted to decide their own destiny. The movement had begun in 1816 with the American Colonization Society, which included both whites and blacks as members, and was an attempt to effect a compromise between those who owned slaves and those who wanted to free them. The idea was to send free blacks elsewhere rather than emancipate them into the United States population. Established and run for the most part by white men, the society included such notable Americans as Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House; Francis Scott Key, the attorney (and author of “The Star–Spangled Banner”); and Bushrod Washington, a Supreme Court justice and the nephew of George Washington. Liberia, established on the west coast of Africa, was the society’s biggest success.

By the 1820s, though, most blacks considered themselves Americans, not Africans, and emigration to Africa was no longer a desirable outcome. “Many of our fathers and some of us have fought and bled for the liberty, independence and peace which you now enjoy,” wrote one free black in the North. “Surely it would be ungenerous and unfeeling in you to deny us a humble and quiet grave in that country which gave us birth.” Although the American Colonization Society continued until the end of the Civil War, it did so with diminishing support from the black population it was meant to serve.

The very definition of freedom itself had evolved. While it had once meant simply escaping slavery to a state where slavery had been abolished, it now included the concepts of equality under the law, freedom of opportunity, and freedom from discrimination and violence. And the growing numbers of blacks moving to northern states began to force the issue.

Events in southern Ohio in 1829 would serve to emphasize these problems, but they also had far–reaching consequences, including the creation of Wilberforce, the first organized all–black settlement in Upper Canada.


Ohio had abolished slavery in 1802 but in the same decade had also passed so–called Black Laws. Enacted in 1804 and 1807 but rarely enforced, these were harsh attempts to stop the immigration of blacks and to control those already living there. New arrivals were required to register and carry a certificate of freedom, as well as to post a five–hundred–dollar bond within twenty days of entering the state.

Still, blacks were drawn there, especially to the city of Cincinnati, right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. Fugitives crossed the river to freedom, free blacks to look for work. The construction of the Miami and Erie Canal, which connected Toledo to Cincinnati, increased the demand for steamships to transport goods throughout the Great Lakes regions and required a large labor pool. Both black and white laborers flocked to Cincinnati. In 1820, blacks made up 2 percent of its population; by the end of the decade, that figure had risen to over 10 percent. In a city already home to hundreds of unemployed citizens, competition for jobs and an eventual downturn in the economy brought about increased tensions. “I thought upon coming to a free state like Ohio that I would find every door thrown open to receive me,” wrote John Malvin, a fugitive, “but from the treatment I received by the people generally, I found it little better than Virginia.”

New problems beset the black community as well as the white population. Denied access to white institutions, blacks attempted to deal with their increasing difficulties by establishing their own associations, but the increased demand for housing and employment could not be satisfied by existing means; there were just not enough resources to go around. Most blacks congregated in Cincinnati’s First and Fourth wards, an area that became known as “Little Africa.” Segregation, although not legally sanctioned, became the norm. Early black settlers had lived in good, well–built houses, but when newcomers began pouring in, any structure had to do. Shacks and shanties rose, creating health and fire hazards.

Whites grew increasingly intolerant. Earlier in the decade, they had made attempts through the Colonization Society to remove blacks from the city in the socially acceptable method popular at the time, but nothing came of the discussion. Local newspapers began printing editorials complaining about black people, accusing them of harboring or even kidnapping runaways. Citizens spoke out loudly against the “night walkers, lewd persons, and those who lounge about without any visible means of support.” While the nighttime activities of whites were probably not that different from those of the blacks accused, it was the latter who bore the brunt of scrutiny and blame.

By June 1829, Cincinnati was at the boiling point. Town trustees issued a proclamation—posted, ironically, on July 4—stating the city's intent to enforce the Black Laws of 1804 and 1807. As the hot, sticky summer drew to a close, blacks in Cincinnati were made acutely aware of their precarious situation. Threats of violence increased. Free blacks responded by forming their own group to look for other places to live: “If the act is enforced,” wrote one, “we, the poor sons of Aethiopia, must take shelter where we can find it…If we cannot find it in America, where we were born and spent all our days, we must beg it elsewhere.”

The Cincinnati group chose as their leader James C. Brown, a former slave who had purchased his freedom by hiring himself out as a skilled mason. Having been a member of the American Colonization Society, Brown was well qualified for the task. He had been sent by the society to Texas to explore setting up a black colony there, and though white opposition had canceled the Texas plans, the experience served him well.

Many blacks like Brown, experiencing segregation, prejudice, and lack of legal standing, were at the outset more than willing to explore colonization elsewhere. As intimidation and threats continued to escalate in Cincinnati, the colonization group decided to send two representatives to Upper Canada to look for a location for an all–black settlement.

Even after the Revolution, the Canadian government had continued to extend itself in this respect. Black as well as white veterans of the War of 1812 had been offered land grants in the rolling farmlands northwest of Lake Ontario. Sir Peregrine Maitland, the province's then lieutenant governor, had been trying to protect his territory against an American invasion from Lake Huron and the Georgian Bay; perhaps he saw the area as a potential sanctuary for runaway slaves from the United States. Since Canada was still a colony of Britain, Maitland could have been adopting a similar antislavery stance. It’s also possible that he was simply interested in further separating his territory from lands now American. Whatever the motives, many fugitives found the land offered too remote to be easily accessible; many who were granted land never settled on it. However, one group of thirteen did establish Oro, essentially the first “assisted” settlement of blacks in Canada. Because it was so distant, Oro was abandoned eventually, but the precedent for black settlement in Canada had been established.

Bearing a letter from James C. Brown, the Cincinnati group’s two representatives, Israel Lewis and Thomas Cresap, met with Gen. John Colborne, then Upper Canada’s lieutenant governor, who is reported to have had this response to their request for safe haven: “Tell the Republicans on your side of the line that we Royalists do not know men by their color. Should you come to us you will be entitled to all the privileges of the rest of His Majesty's subjects.”

The Canada Company had been incorporated by the British Parliament in 1825 to obtain land in Canada and promote its sale to prospective settlers. Lewis and Cresup returned to Cincinnati not only with Colborne's assurances of legal protection but also an offer by the Canada Company to sell four thousand acres, only eight miles from the shores of Lake Erie, for six thousand dollars.

The Cincinnati group didn’t have the money. They asked the Ohio legislature for help but were refused. Finally, Quakers from Ohio and Indiana stepped in and purchased eight hundred acres. Nevertheless, as representatives were completing the land deal, whites in Cincinnati proceeded with their plans to enforce the Black Laws and rid their town of its black population. Threats of mob violence grew. Writing in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Brown pleaded with the city for a three–month extension: “Withhold your mighty arms until our representatives return, we beg your sympathy until we find shelter.”

As designated leader of the black population, and aware that it would take time to move over two thousand people to a new community, Brown did everything in his power to placate the whites until the blacks could leave. He wrote articles for the Gazette to keep the public informed about the black community’s plans for emigration to Canada and their efforts thus far. But even this did not satisfy the whites. On August 15, 1829, a mob of three hundred attacked the black community, beating the inhabitants and demolishing their homes and businesses. The violence went on for three days. Over fifteen hundred African Americans fled for their lives.

Those who left the city fell roughly into two groups, each pushed into immediate action by the violence, but each having different motives. As historian Nikki Taylor has noted, some were refugees, escaping the mob violence of Cincinnati, going anywhere for safety; those led by Brown were emigrants, having already organized and made plans to leave the city to create a new life elsewhere.

Some of the refugees moved to cities just outside of Cincinnati, seeking safety close to home. Many even returned later the same year, when the Cincinnati city fathers realized that they were losing much of their cheap labor pool and the mayor promised he would try to repeal the Black Laws. Of those who continued on to Canada, most settled right across the border from Detroit, near the town of Amherstburg. Their goal was to move only far enough away to get outside the reach of American prejudice and violence toward them.

But at least five families moved on to the lands purchased from the Canada Company and became the nucleus of the settlement that came to be known as Wilberforce. During its nearly ten–year existence, settlers established two churches, a temperance society, a gristmill, a sawmill, and schools. One visitor noted that twenty to thirty children were at school; others made mention that even some white children from the neighboring areas were in attendance. The desire for a quality education superseded any belief in segregation.

When James C. Brown left Wilberforce soon after the first settlers arrived (his wife having grown disillusioned with living in Canada), Israel Lewis recruited Austin Steward, a successful grocer from Rochester, New York. Steward was supportive of the new settlement. He believed that rural areas, not cities, were the best places for blacks to find opportunity for independence and self–sufficiency. In his memoir, Twenty–Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, he wrote, “Our people mostly flock to cities where they allow themselves to be made hewers of wood and drawers of water; barbers and waiters—when, if they would but retire to the country and purchase a piece of land, cultivate and improve it, they would be far richer and happier than they can in a crowded city.”

It was Steward who had first given the community the name Wilberforce, in honor of William Wilberforce. Known as “the Liberator” for his eighteen–year effort to end slavery in the British Empire, Wilberforce deserved the honor. Religious influences had moved him to his abolitionist beliefs, among them John Newton, his rector in London, a reformed slave trader who had been inspired to write the song “Amazing Grace” in testament to his conversion. Just three days before Wilberforce died, the House of Commons finally passed the British Emancipation Act. He lived to know that the first organized all–black settlement in Upper Canada had been named for him and that his abolitionist efforts had succeeded.

Austin Steward assumed leadership of Wilberforce, as he had been asked to do, but it became clear that he had taken on the role, at least in some part, to propel himself to a seat in Parliament. Israel Lewis, however, wanted the recognition of leading the community himself. Internal struggles ensued, personally as well as financially; Lewis was eventually accused of absconding with moneys he had solicited for the settlement. These problems were aired publicly, affecting what until then had been favorable American press about the community, especially on the part of Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker abolitionist who published the Genius of Universal Emancipation, an antislavery newspaper.

Before 1830, Lundy had been the foremost figure in the antislavery movement in the States. His lifelong efforts influenced many of the early abolitionists of the time, including William Lloyd Garrison, who credited Lundy with “awakening” him to “the holy cause of emancipation.” Garrison, writing in his own newspaper, the Liberator, also supported Wilberforce: “As it increases in population, intelligence and power, it will render the prolongation of that accursed and bloody system more and more insecure, and increase more and more the necessity of abolishing it altogether and without delay.”

Benjamin Lundy had attended the 1823 meeting of the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, where he became acquainted with antislavery pamphlets from Britain circulating at the time. He began reprinting them in his paper as he received them, keeping Americans abreast of the rising tide of British antislavery efforts. In addition to his work as a publisher, Lundy was an agent of the American Colonization Society, and in his newspaper actively promoted its positions. He began looking toward British North American lands for possible locations for colonization efforts, though he made it very clear that his motivation was in freeing the slaves, not getting rid of them.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Underground Railroad -- Ontario.
Underground Railroad -- Michigan -- Detroit Region.
Fugitive slaves -- Ontario -- History -- 19th century.
Fugitive slaves -- Michigan -- Detroit Region -- History -- 19th century.
Slaves -- Ontario -- History -- 19th century.
Slaves -- Michigan -- Detroit Region -- History -- 19th century.
African Americans -- Ontario -- History -- 19th century.
Blacks -- Ontario -- History -- 19th century.
Land settlement -- Ontario -- History -- 19th century.
Detroit Region (Mich.) -- History -- 19th century.