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Last Stop: Oro-Medonte
Last Stop: Oro-Medonte
For most of us, that single word embodies a horrific chapter in our history, a time when the life of one man or woman was seen as somehow less than that of another, due to nothing more than pigment of their skin. Cruelty and abuse were the means by which slave owners maintained their ranks of indentured servants, with measures that were nothing less than barbaric by any modern measure.
Yet somehow, despite the tragedies and the sorrows that filled their lives, the men and women who called themselves slaves managed to not only survive, but to bring with them down through the years and decades and centuries of their oppression a detailed history of their ordeals, and of the lives both lived and lost during those dark times.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN NORTH AMERICA
The popular history of slavery which most of us learn in school that the majority of slaves were taken from African nations and transported around the world to be sold at market to rich white men who owned plantations in the American South and beyond. There they would be put to work in fields, cutting cane or picking cotton, or as farm hands or house staff for their wealthy owners.
Some, like Solomon Northrup, whose tragic tale was so eloquently depicted in the 2013 film 12 Years A Slave, were free men who were kidnapped right from the streets of the cities where they lived as equals, only to be stripped of their identities and sold to the highest bidder.
Under the conditions of their ownership, many of those men and women were subjected to hardships we can only begin to imagine. Toiling for endless hours under back-breaking conditions; punishment at the end of a lash; disfigurement or maiming or even death for attempting to escape their bonds; the endless threat of rape at the hands of their masters. It is little wonder, then, that many found their spirits broken, their will to thrive independently all but snuffed out and extinguished.
Yet a vast number of those men and women also managed to survive their ordeals. Some even found their way back to freedom --- whether by securing their release through payment, or by the statutes of the Emancipation Proclamation put forth by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Others were fortunate enough to escape their torment. Those terrible few fled the plantations that had become their prisons and followed a network of hidden paths, secret routes, and established safe houses that led out of the slaving territories to lands where freedom was a fundamental right for all men and women.
THE PROMISE OF THE NORTH
Contrary to popular belief, slavery did exist in Canada.
Great Britain, of which Upper and Lower Canada were colonies in the later 1700s and early 1800s, has its own role to play in the trading of African slaves. While that particular commerce was never truly significant within the Canadas, it did exist, with “a small number of African people forcibly brought as chattel slaves to New France, Acadia and later to British North America during the 17th Century”.(i) It was not until the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (ii) that the practice of slavery and slave owning became illegal in this fledgling nation.
By that time, however, the institution of slavery had been firmly entrenched in the social and political network of the Southern territories of what would eventually become the United States of America. Prior to the US Civil War, its was the establishment of slavery which divided that country, with practicing slavers in the South facing strong and vocal opposition to their endeavours by Abolitionists in the North.
It was this network of Abolitionists – those who decried the systematic abuse of men and women and children at the hands of slave owners and their foremen – who first established a means by which they might aid in the escape and freedom of those whom they could reach, and their relocation to territories beyond the reach of their former masters.
Since the banning of slavery in Indiana in 1816, and Illinois in 1819, the Ohio River had been the de facto boundary between the slave lands of Virginia and points farther south, and the free Northern Territories. (iii) It was this promise of freedom from the bondage that had held them in place for generations that drew the eyes of countless slaves toward he North, but getting there posed a difficult and most dangerous challenge to anyone who dared make the attempt to break away from their captors.
BUILDING THE RAILROAD
What began as a random, scattered effort to smuggle slaves of plantations and away from their masters quickly coalesced into a concerted mission aimed at freeing men, women and children from their bondage. Through a network of hidden pathways, caves, abandoned ruins and safehouses, freed slaves were directed northward, toward the free lands that lay beyond the reach of their captors.
Travel was dangerous, and mostly done at night. The image of families scurrying through moonlit forest and swamps remains the indelible symbol of the flight to freedom. For most of their journey, fugitive slaves would be guided by men and women sympathetic to their plight. They would be directed to waypoints along secret routes that led from one haven to the next, often with hunting parties and vigilante posses chasing close behind, their presence often punctuated by the bark and snarl of dogs trained to not only recover fleeing slaves, but to inflict injury upon them for their efforts.
Gradually, the effort to ferry slaves to freedom began to find some measure of organization, and with it, a new litany of terminology entered the American lexicon. For many roles played along the course of the fledgling Underground Railroad there were secret code names given to identify not only those persons who could be trusted, but the routes and paths and waypoints that marked the journey ahead.
Members of the Underground Railroad often used specific terms, based on the metaphor of the railway.
• People who helped slaves find the railroad were “agents” (or “shepherds”)
• Guides were known as “conductors”
• Hiding places were “stations” or “way stations”
• “Station masters” hid slaves in their homes
• Escaped slaves were referred to as “passengers” or “cargo”
• Slaves would obtain a “ticket”
• Similar to common gospel lore, the “wheels would keep on turning”
• Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as “stockholders”
The Big Dipper (whose “bowl” points to the North Star) was known as the drinkin’ gourd. The Railroad was often known as the “freedom train” or “Gospel train”, which headed toward “Heaven” or “the Promised Land”, ie: Canada. (iv)
PURSUING THE RUNAWAYS
To counter the ever-present threat of slave escapes or revolt against their masters, slave owners established organized patrols of white men whose duties included the extension of discipline upon black slaves, the policing of runaways, and those measures of discipline determined to be justified in their effort to maintain the established order of slavery as it existed. Groups of white men dedicated to the tracking down, containment and capture of runaway slaves patrolled the countryside following rumours of fugitive slaves passing through districts and settlements on their flight for freedom. River patrols were established to prevent escape by boat.
The first slave patrols were established in pre-Revolutionary War South Carolina. As the population of black slaves began to boom, the fear of an uprising or outright revolt drove plantation owners to establish laws that strictly regulated the abilities of black and whites alike. (v)
Fugitives found to be in contravention of those laws, or captured in flight, could expect brutal reprisals as punishment for their actions. Floggings and beatings were the minimum reprimands a fugitive slave might face. Slave patrollers were often equipped with guns and whips and would exert brutal and racially motivated control. (vi)
The killing of renegade slaves was not considered a criminal act by many courts, thereby allowing the patrollers to exercise the means of apprehending runaways at their own discretion.
THE HAVEN OF CANADA
The vast majority of routes of the Underground Railroad led to the border with Canada, and beyond. It is estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 slaves managed to find freedom north of the international boundary during the years that the Railroad was in operation. (vii)
Common points of destination in Ontario includes land around Niagara Falls, Buxton, Chatham, Owen Sound, Windsor, Hamilton, Brantford, London, Oakville and Toronto. Beyond Ontario’s borders, refugee slaves found safety in regions of Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. (viii)
As stated in the Canadian Encyclopedia: “During this mass migration, Black Canadians contributed significantly to building strong communities and to the development of the provinces in which they lived and worked.” (ix) Newly arrived freed slaves were quickly integrated into existing Black communities where they quickly found camaraderie with their ethnic brethren, and an unexpected welcome and acceptance from their predominantly white neighbours.
ORO-MEDONTE: THE BLACK SETTLEMENT
The city of Barrie lies slightly more than 100 kilometres north of Toronto. If one wanders just a bit farther, the community of Oro-Medonte occupies the open land between Kempenfelt Bay on Lake Simcoe, and the southern tip of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The land in this region formed the backbone of British supply lines between the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. In the years following that conflict, the fear of a restrengthened America invading once more was considered a very real possibility.
In order to secure the main supply route between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, a rough-hewn path cut through the wilderness which would come to be known as the Penetanguishene Road (named after the naval establishment located at its northernmost point), it was decided by the government to then Upper Canada that the best way to discourage any such attempt at invasion would be to populate that area with veteran militiamen.
To that end, in the years between 1819 and 1831, land along concessions fronting either side of the Penetanguishene Road were granted to black veterans of the previous War. Chief among those first to be granted lands in the Oro area were the men of Captain Runche’s “Company of Coloured Men”. (x) All along Concession Line II (known as Wilberforce Street, named after British abolitionist William Wilberforce), and later along Concessions III and IV, some 60 black settlers and their families – a total population of approximately 100 persons -- were incorporated upon land that had yet to be cleared or settled by European farmers.
In 1831, abolitionist Reverend Art Raymond arrived to minister to the residents of Oro Township. Eleven years later, the community built the African Methodist Episcopal Church near the township of Edgar. (xi) Despite its close affiliation with the black settlers, services were open to both black and white settlers of the Township.
THE NORTHERN TERMINUS
It was to this area that passengers on the Underground Railroad might have found their way. As the northernmost terminus of that network, most former slaves who had escaped their captivity had settled in communities nearer to the border. Yet despite any concrete evidence to support the theory that freed slaves formed a portion of the settlers who occupied the Oro area, there remains a measure of folklore which support that belief. (xii)
Perhaps the longevity of that claim can be traced back to our desire to believe that we were able to play some small role in the freeing of countless men and women and children who suffered under the bonds of one of humanity’s most heinous and cruel enterprises. Or perhaps it is the hope that if even one single freed slave might have passed through our area, then by extension we can claim to have lent our collective efforts to countering the stigma of enslavement of our fellow man.
Whether or not the historical record supports the theory that present-day Oro-Medonte might once have been the northernmost terminus for the Underground Railroad, the fact remains that this area was the first and only government-sponsored Black settlement in Upper Canada. And it is this historical record which has been etched in bronze upon an historical plaque at the foot of what was once Wilberforce Street, and in both bronze and stone plaques mounted upon four sides of a sculpted cairn on the grounds of the church which stills stands on the corner of the same one-acre lot gifted by black landowner Noah Morris in 1847.
Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has been revitalized thanks to countless donations from both Canadian and American supporters. That small, wood-framed building continues to stand as a reminder of our past, and of the heritage of the Oro Townships and the Black settlers who first occupied those lands. There, on the windswept corner of Concession III and 9/10 Sideroad, is a time capsule which serves as a reminder of an era where equality between men was still a new notion, and where those who congregated beneath its roof were the first to take those tentative steps toward realizing that the differences between men can be their strengths, instead of their weaknesses.
Barrie, Ontario --- May 2018
x) From Township of Oro-Medonte historical plaque mounted at the African Methodist Episcopal Church