How the Underground Freedom Train transforms a commute into a community in memory of black history

On July 31, Toronto's subway will become a (literal) moving tribute to Emancipation Day — and there's something subversively magical about it.

On July 31, Toronto's subway will become a (literal) moving tribute to Emancipation Day

The Underground Freedom Train in 2016. (Ainsworth Ellis)

Public transit in Toronto is a site of normalized regulation and ritualized order. Yellow lines dictate where to stand on train platforms, mechanized voices announce stops and safety reminders and people who don't know to 'stand right, walk left' on escalators inevitably receive dirty looks. However, for the past five years during the waning hours of July 31, those rules and regulations are set aside. They are instead replaced with the sounds of reverberating drums, a train with a singular destination and bodies of all ages, genders and ethnicities dancing, singing and chanting in the midst of bewildered looks from startled onlookers.

The gathering is the annual Underground Freedom Train, an event that honours the perilous journey formerly enslaved people took to attain freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad. Organized by A Different Booklist, the African Canadian Heritage Association, Zero Gun Violence Movement, the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, the Ontario Black History Society and the African Drummers Collective in partnership with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), participants gather at Union Station and travel northward on a specially reserved TTC train without stop to Sheppard West (formerly known as Downsview) Station.

As a frequent participant in the Underground Freedom Train, I can tell you that there is something subversively magical about collectively disrupting the business-as-usual repetition of a subway station with celebratory songs, poetic lamentations and bold expressive dance. Familiar spaces become transformed. Subway stations are no longer monotonous thoroughfares for commuters but rather become a pulsating meeting ground of community. The train transforms from a precarious space of singular strangers avoiding eye contact and touch at all costs to a site of connection between people often moved to tears as they honour and pay tribute to notoriously under-recognized past.

The 2016 Underground Freedom Train conductor, Emily Wickham. (Ainsworth Ellis)

Each year, the Underground Freedom Train begins on July 31 and ends on August 1. In Ontario, and many parts of the world that were once British colonies, August 1st is recognized as Emancipation Day (but not in the rest of Canada, though there is currently a petition to change that). It marks the moment on August 1, 1834 when Britain's Slavery Abolition Act took effect, officially granting freedom to over one million people who were enslaved in Canada, the Caribbean and South Africa. However, as Louis March — one of the organizers for the Underground Freedom Train — noted to me when we spoke over the phone earlier this week: "After going through over 500 years of slavery, you can't just sign a document to undo that history. It's a work in progress that needs to be addressed on a regular basis because you can't just wipe the slate clean and start all over."

Rather than investing in the simplistic and overstated myth of Canada as the land of freedom and opportunity — a myth that often ignores the fact that the institution of slavery also had a long and enduring presence here — the event focuses rather on the journey taken by those who were enslaved in the search for freedom. The Underground Freedom Train is an attempt to invoke rituals of remembering and reflection.

After going through over 500 years of slavery, you can't just sign a document to undo that history. It's a work in progress that needs to be addressed on a regular basis because you can't just wipe the slate clean and start all over.- Louis March, Underground Freedom Train organizer

Alongside the history of the Underground Railroad, the event also calls upon other narratives in black Canadian history including that of the Brotherhood of Black Sleeping Car Porters, the first labour organization led by black people. These porters traveled on the Pullman cars serving food, making beds, shining shoes and catering to the needs of white passengers as they travelled across Canada and the United States.

"The black porters [are] a chapter in Canadian history that's seldom spoken about," March tells me. "They're the one's that travelled across Canada often in unbearable working conditions. They deserve to be recognized and celebrated."

This year, the organizers will be unveiling a commemorative plaque that recognized the work of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The plaque is sponsored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and will be mounted at Union Station once renovations there are complete.

The person primarily tasked with leading this reflection is the conductor of the Underground Freedom Train. It is a role cast in memory of the renowned abolitionist, spy and armed scout Harriet Tubman. Each year, the organizers invite a different woman from the community whose activism and work embody the principles that Harriet Tubman stood for: courage, sacrifice, risk and leadership.

"Harriet Tubman helped bring over [countless] enslaved people from the United States to Canada at a time when her life was at risk not only day to day but from hour to hour," March reminds me. "There was a bounty on her head — but that didn't stop her. So the conductor is important for us to recognize and celebrate who she was and also use this as an opportunity to recognize and celebrate other people in our community who demonstrate similar characteristics."

This year's conductor is Zanana Akande — the first black woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, the former cabinet minister and the former president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the Canadian Alliance of Black Educators and the Toronto Child Abuse Centre. The conductor on the Underground Freedom Train is, in many ways, like the master of ceremonies — setting the tone for the entire event, reminding the passengers of its significance and connecting the themes between the various artists.

Danavan Samuels and Arsema Berhane got married on last year's Underground Freedom Train. (Ainsworth Ellis)

Performance art plays an integral role in the Underground Freedom Train. Drums greet passengers as they arrive at Union Station. Poets and singers regale them as they ride on the train. And dancers demand space as they celebrate our arrival at Sheppard West Station. These are the storytellers tasked with translating historical facts into living and breathing memories moving the audience from expressions of joy and celebration to solemn reflection and meditation. This year's artists include dub poet and theatre legend d'bi young, Baro Dununba and Friends African Drumming Ensemble and the Ubuntu drumming and dance ensemble.

Alongside these performances, each year the organizers honour the continuation of everyday life in the midst of immense struggle. While escaping to freedom, babies were born, people fell in love, families were separated and reunited, couples got married and life continued against all odds.  Last year at the Underground Freedom Train, a couple surprised passengers by exchanging vows at Union Station in honour of this commitment to life. This year the organizers promise another surprise that will serve as a symbolic celebration of the way black folks continue living — a subtle yet poignant reminder that despite absence from the documented record, for generations black lives have and will continue to matter.

Underground Freedom Train Ride 2017. July 31. Toronto.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.


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