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Canada, Code Name: Heaven

 

 

The Tower of Freedom monument features four life-size bronze figures on the south side of a granite monolith: Two women with a baby and a man standing behind with his arms outstretched in praise. On the north side of the monolith, a young girl holds a rag doll and looks back across the river (to Detroit). 

The other monument in Detroit depicts the Gateway to Freedom, which features a bronze sculpture of six slaves awaiting transport to Canada. 

 

Photo by M Ready Wikimedia licensed CC BY-SA 3.0


In a speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, he mentioned that African-Americans in slavery often called Canada "Heaven." It was a code name used by people who were part of the Underground Railroad.

How much do you know about the Underground Railroad?


What was it?

A door in a tunnel which runaway slaves could hide.
Door in a smuggling tunnel where runaway slaves could hide for the night. Photo by By Docspond via Wikimedia licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

The Underground Railroad was made up of secret routes used by enslaved African-Americans to escape to freedom in Canada. Blacks who had escaped slavery and abolitionists (people who wanted slavery to end) worked as conductors, or guides, helping to lead runaways to safe places to hide and avoid being captured, tortured and returned to slave masters. It was very risky!


Code words and code names

People who participated in the Underground Railroad could face severe penalties and cruel punishments if they were caught. To keep things secret, they had to use a variety of "code words." These codes were used to give directions, warnings, or pass along important information and messages. Check out these examples:

Code words used by slaves and participants in the Underground Railroad so they could communicate with each other.
ozaiachin/123RF Stock Photo


Why Canada?

The exterior of a slave pen.
This building was a slave pen on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. Photo by Rdikeman Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Though Black people were enslaved all across North America, the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada (a law passed in 1793) was kind of like the beginning of the end for slavery. Though this law put an end to the importation of slaves to Upper Canada, it did not release slaves outright. And, it didn’t quite stop the slave selling or trading. But what the law did do was help change attitudes towards enslavement, and contributed to the anti-slavery movements. For African-Americans who had escaped slavery, crossing the boarder to Canada meant freedom.

 

1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada
The 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. Image from Archives of Ontario/Statutes of Upper Canada.

During the War of 1812, the enslaved servants of soldiers from the American South told other enslaved people about freedom in British North America (Canada).

 

“Underground” routes to Canada (1898) map
A map to show different routes to Canada. “Underground” routes to Canada (1898) The New York Public Library Collections licensed Public Domain

 

Eventually, as many as 30,000 enslaved Black people would make dangerous journeys to find freedom in parts of Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick and regions of southern Ontario including Chatham, Buxton, Windsor, Hamilton, Oakville and Toronto through the legendary Underground Railroad. Tired, injured and even starving enslaved Black people often marked their arrival in Canada by shouting out that they had made it to "heaven" or "Canaan land"!


Gotta give a shout out!

Harriet Tubman, on far-left, holding a pan.
Harriet Tubman, far left holding a pan, poses with family and rescued slaves she helped escape. Photo by William H. Cheney via The New York Times photo archive licensed Public Doman

An extra special shout out goes to Harriet Tubman, also known as "Moses." She made over 19 trips from the American south to Canada to lead over 300 enslaved Blacks to freedom. She is remembered for being the Underground Railroad’s most fearless and successful conductor!