The Underground Railroad

By Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and Karolyn Smardz Frost

The Underground Railroad
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Stories of the hopeful, brave people who fled slavery and made Toronto their home.

“An engaging and highly readable account of the lives of Black people in Toronto in the 1800s. ” — Lawrence Hill, bestselling author of The Illegal

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! ... Read more


Overview

Stories of the hopeful, brave people who fled slavery and made Toronto their home.

“An engaging and highly readable account of the lives of Black people in Toronto in the 1800s. ” — Lawrence Hill, bestselling author of The Illegal

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! explores Toronto’s role as a destination for thousands of freedom seekers before the American Civil War. This new edition traces pathways taken by people, enslaved and free, who courageously made the trip north in search of liberty and offers new biographies, images, and information, some of which is augmented by a 2015 archaeological dig in downtown Toronto.

Within its pages are stories of courageous men, women, and children who overcame barriers of prejudice and racism to create homes, institutions, and a rich and vibrant community life in Canada’s largest city. These brave individuals established organizations not only to help newcomers but to also oppose the ongoing slavery in the United States and to resist racism in their adopted city.

Based entirely on original research, The Underground Railroad offers fresh insights into the rich heritage of African Americans who became African Canadians and helped build Toronto as we know the city today.

Adrienne Shadd

Adrienne Shadd is a consultant, curator, and author, who has been recognized with the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations and the J.C. Holland Award for her research and writing.

Afua Cooper

 

Afua Cooper, Halifax’s seventh Poet Laureate, is the author of five books of poetry, including the critically acclaimed Copper Woman and Other Poems and two novels, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal, and My Name is Phillis Wheatley. She has also recorded two poetry CDs, including the forthcoming Love and Revolution. A founder of the Canadian Dub poetry movement, Afua Cooper was instrumental in organizing between 2004 and 2009, three international dub poetry festivals.

 

Karolyn Smardz Frost

Karolyn Smardz Frost is an archaeologist, historian, and award-winning author. She and her team at the Toronto Board of Education’s Archaeological Resource Centre uncovered the first Underground Railroad site in Canada.

Excerpt

Deborah Brown: Freedom Seeker
On December 8, 1908, the Evening Telegram published the story of an elderly woman named Deborah Brown who lived in a part of Toronto known as Seaton Village. Mrs. Brown had died in 1898 and is reported to have been 111 years old at the time of her death. She was considered to be the oldest resident in Seaton Village, and her house was said to be the oldest building in the village. Deborah Brown had once been enslaved in Maryland, on the east coast of the United States. She had escaped to Canada in the mid-1800s with her husband, Perry, when they learned he was about to be sold. The couple moved to the Township of York, the part of Toronto north of Bloor Street, which was the northern edge of the City of Toronto at the time. She lived in the same one-storey wooden cottage on Markham Street, near the corner of Bathurst and Bloor Streets, for over fifty years.
Nowadays it is hard for us to imagine that when Deborah and Perry Brown first moved to the area, it was rural farmland. By the 1870s their neighbourhood, by then known as “Seaton Village,” was bounded by Bedford Road on the east, Christie Street on the west, and Davenport Road to the north, with Bloor Street as its southern perimeter. In 1888, Seaton Village and the Town of Yorkville, which had developed just to the east around Yonge and Bloor Streets, were annexed to the growing city of Toronto. In a span of fifty years, the region where the Browns lived had gone from being on the rural fringes to being in the centre of the city.
Deborah Brown worked as a washerwoman, and her husband was a labourer. The Browns were a working-class family, judging from their occupations and their standard of living. Deborah could not read or write, and her husband, Perry, was also probably illiterate. In most U. S. states it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read and write, so they had likely been prevented from gaining an education before coming to Canada. They purchased the house and the quarter-acre lot on which they lived for $50 in 1870. Their house was a modest wooden cottage with a garden, and they owned two pigs. Deborah and Perry were part of a larger Black community that was comprised of a working class, a middle class of skilled craftsmen and shop owners, and a tiny upper class of wealthy families whose businesses had been very successful. These wealthier Black Torontonians often owned a great deal of property, including houses that they rented out.
Deborah’s work as a washerwoman was one of the jobs that women did to earn money, but it was hard, backbreaking work. Prior to the invention of electric washers and dryers, washing clothes involved hauling and heating a large bucket of water and mixing in a lye-based soap. Clothes had to be washed by hand, then rinsed, dried, and ironed. Many women were able to earn a living by taking in other people’s laundry. However, Mrs. Brown lived during the Victorian era of the 1800s. At that time a woman’s primary responsibility was her own household, and it was frowned upon if a woman engaged in waged work. Nevertheless, most Black women had always worked. Their income was needed to help support the family.
In the late 1870s, Mrs. Brown was listed in the city directory as a nurse. This “directory” was a book published each year that recorded the name, address, and occupation of the head of each Toronto household. It is not likely that she studied nursing formally, as formal training in nursing did not begin in Toronto until the 1880s. Deborah may have gained a great deal of knowledge over the years in curing various sicknesses through the use of herbs, roots, and the like, and used her knowledge to nurse friends and acquaintances back to health. However, many women who reported their occupations as nurses in the nineteenth century were untrained. They worked in what today is known as personal support work, looking after the sick and elderly, cooking, and keeping the house tidy. This occupation was pursued especially by women who were widowed after the death of their husbands. It was another way to survive, and Deborah, too, found this avenue for earning a living.
Deborah and Perry were of the Wesleyan Methodist faith. They probably attended the Black churches in downtown Toronto from time to time — certainly on special occasions like Christmas, Easter, and Emancipation Day, the day set aside in early August to celebrate the British act of parliament of 1833 that freed enslaved people in most of the British Empire. However, Deborah also attended the Methodist church in Seaton Village. The 1908 Evening Telegram article notes that even in extreme old age Mrs. Brown continued to be a member of the Sunday School. She delighted in getting up on the platform with the children at Sunday School anniversary celebrations. Most Black people at that time belonged to either the Methodist or the Baptist faith, although there were Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists in the community, too.
Deborah Brown had at least one child that we know of. Her name was Sarah Brooks, but she does not seem to have come with her parents when they escaped to Canada. Sadly, her parents may have been forced by circumstances to leave her behind in slavery. There was, however, an eight-year-old child named William H. Brown, born in the United States, who lived with Deborah and Perry in 1861. Because of Deborah’s age then, fifty-six, it is not certain whether William was her child or a grandchild. He may even have been a nephew or great-nephew. When the census was taken in 1861 listing nearly all the people in every household in Canada, William H. was reported to be absent from the Brown home and living in “Toronto City” attending school. Unfortunately, after 1861, William was not listed in the same household as Deborah Brown again, and we are not sure what happened to him.
More is known about daughter Sarah Brooks. She had been born in the United States and she in turn had a daughter named Cornelia, who was also American-born. After the American Civil War was over and once-enslaved African Americans were free, these two women were living on Centre Street in St. John’s Ward, just west of today’s City Hall. According to the 1881 census, Sarah was fifty-six and Cornelia (her name was mistakenly recorded by the census-taker as “Amelia”) was twenty-three years of age. Both were widows. Like Deborah, her daughter and granddaughter also worked as laundresses.
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all enslaved African Americans in the states that had rebelled against the Union. After the Civil War, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, all the enslaved people of the American South gained their freedom. Some people who had found refuge in what is now Ontario went back to the United States in search of the families and homes they had left behind.
However, the story of Deborah and Perry Brown and of their daughter Sarah Brooks shows that, rather than making a “return trip” south after the Civil War, some African Canadians brought their family members north to live with them in Canada.

Reviews

As a young African Canadian woman born and raised in Toronto, I am thrilled to turn the pages of this book and discover my roots and heritage. I honour the courage and determination of the freedom seekers who made Toronto their home and helped to develop the city. Cooper, Shadd, and Smardz Frost have diligently brought to light and shared with us, unknown histories of Black ancestors. The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! is ambitious in its scope, thorough in its depth, and expansive in its reach. It is an essential read for people of my generation and beyond. I commend and thank the authors for this ground-breaking work.

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! is a story to be told and retold over time and who better to do this than these most capable historians, Afua Cooper, Adrienne Shadd, and Karolyn Smardz Frost. A history worth the retelling.

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! stands out as an engaging and highly readable account of the lives of Black people in Toronto in the 1800s. Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and Karolyn Smardz Frost offer many helpful points of entry for readers learning for the first time about Black history in Canada. They also give surprising and detailed information to enrich the understanding of people already passionate about this neglected aspect of our own past.

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