Friday, February 6, 2009

In honour of Black History Month - two very different local perspectives

Oakville and the Underground Railroad

From 1820 to 1865, the Underground Railroad secretly transported thousands of fugitive slaves who traveled from the southern U.S. across the border to freedom in Canada. For many escaped African Americans, Oakville harbour was their first view of Canada and a new life of freedom. Oakville native, Captain Robert Wilson (pictured at right) helped hundreds of blacks cross Lake Ontario on his ships. One individual, James Wesley Hill crossed the border in a packing box in the late 1840's, settled on a farm near Oakville, and went on to help many escaped slaves by giving them work picking strawberries. His house still stands today at 457 Maple Grove Drive.

Oakville's influx of newcomers led to integrated schools and church groups in addition to new businesses - there was a distinct change in the fabric of early Oakville society. Emanicpation Day was celebrated in St. George's Square. Freed slaves from all over Ontario returned to Oakville to remember the occasion and march up Trafalgar Road to Captain Wilson's house (which still stands at 41 Navy Street).

To learn more about Oakville's connection to the Underground Railroad, see Deborah Lerech's essay, The Underground Railroad.

Joseph Brant - slave owner

There was an interesting news article in The Toronto Star last week commenting on Joseph Brant and the fact that he owned about 30 slaves. Of particular interest is the story of Sophia Pooley. Born to slave parents in New York state, at about age 12 (different sources vary) she was kidnapped with a sister and sold to Brant in the Niagara area on the U.S. side of the border. When Brant moved to Burlington in 1784 he brought Sophia and his other slaves with him. When she was about 20, he sold her to English settler Samuel Hatt of Ancaster. Sophia lived into her nineties in the Waterloo region. Her story is part of the oral history Refugee: or the Narratives of the Fugitive Slaves in Canada, published in 1856 and makes very interesting reading. To learn more about Sophia Pooley, see this excerpt from Refugee.