Descendants of former slaves keep black history alive

In rural, southern Ontario, descendants of former slaves and of the those who lived around the time of the Underground Railroad have taken it upon themselves to build the small museums that preserve an important moment in Canadian history.

Small museums dedicated to abolition of slavery can be found all over southern Ontario

The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in North Buxton, Ont. include a cabin filled with artefacts and a schoolhouse. Buxton was once a bustling town for black Canadians in its early years during the 1850s. (

Spencer Alexander is one of a number of descendants of former slaves who have taken it upon themselves to preserve an important moment in Canadian history.

Alexander is the assistant curator at the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in North Buxton, Ont., a small community in the rural, southwestern part of the province that was one of the first stops on the Underground Railway for fugitive former slaves in the mid-1800s.

He is a a sixth-generation resident of the settlement; his roots are deep, as is his knowledge of his ancestry after years of research.

"One of my ancestors would be, great-great-great-grandfather George Hatter, who escaped slavery from Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1837 when he was only 19… on his second attempt," says Alexander. "He settled in the Niagara region and then came to this settlement in 1850 shortly after it was founded."

The population of North Buxton now is only about 200, well down from its heyday in the 1850s when it had upwards of 2,000 people, but that falloff is only encouraging residents like Alexander in the fight to preserve their heritage.

Spencer Alexander, a sixth generation descendant of slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad, works at the Buxton Museum as assistant curator. (
In the stories of the escape from slavery to what was then British North America, finding refuge north of the border often has an idyllic tinge. But Alexander says that what he and others are preserving is the not just that moment of freedom, but the struggles that came before and continued on after.

Escaping slavery in the southern U.S. "is the end of that chapter, but a whole new chapter starts when they get here," he says.

And that new chapter is key to connecting one moment in black history to the rest of Canadian history, according to Blair Newby, director of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Museum.

"It’s so unfortunate that even in school we hardly ever discuss this," she says. "American history covers a small extent of it, but we never mention that there was slavery in Canada before it was a haven, or that there was ever discrimination here."

"It’s what one of my professors referred to as the 'romanticization of the Underground Railroad', because blacks came here to find their freedom, but nobody ever wants to discuss that there was racism or discrimination here, because they view it as the end of the line, where they were all able to start new lives."

Chatham-Kent is a key location when it comes to an examination of how these new arrivals fared in their new home.

During the 1840s to 1870s, there were black doctors, lawyer and other professionals who practised in the area — a part of Canadian history that is not often discussed, Newby points out.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

There are close to 20 black historical museums across Ontario, and though not all of them receive the same amount of attention, they all have a unique story to tell.

Perhaps the most iconic is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, located in Dresden, also in Chatham-Kent county. It has been recognized internationally for its role in the abolition movement.

Rev. Josiah Henson, a clergyman and teacher who became the inspiration for the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." (Courtesy Uncle Tom's Cabin Historical Site)

An escaped slave from Kentucky, Rev. Josiah Henson, became a leader in the Underground Railroad community of southwestern Ontario. He co-founded the British American Institute in 1841, a vocational school for escaped slaves in what would become known as the Dawn Settlement.

Residents of the settlement farmed and worked in local industries, and some left to return to the U,S. after the Civil War. 

Henson’s memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself was published in 1849. Other editions were eventually published, but his name became truly famous when Harriet Beecher Stowe said that his memoirs were used as inspiration for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.

All of these small museums across southern Ontario offer something special and unique in how they’re run and what they showcase, says researcher Adrienne Shadd.

"They are significant because they have been created by the descendants and not something that is top-down from the government," she says. "It’s really interesting how these descendants have established all theses sites and museums, and it makes it a lot more immediate and even more interesting."