'It's our heritage, it's our legacy': A Black woman on her family's passage through the Underground Railroad

Originally from Brantford, Ont., Tracy Cain says her ancestors have shaped the way of life for herself and her current family, as Black individuals in Guelph. It wasn't until adulthood that the now 58-year-old singer understood what her ancestors went through to seek freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Tracy Cain, 58, says she finally realized in adulthood the 'horrors' ancestors endured to get to Ontario

Tracy Cain's ancestors escaped slavery from the United States and settled in Ontario through the Underground Railroad between 1800 and 1863. Now living in Guelph, Ont., Cain wants her ancestry to help her children be aware of their past heritage and be encouraged to accomplish their goals and aspirations.  (Submitted by Tracy Cain)

At a young age, Tracy Cain could recall learning about her ancestors passing through the Underground Railroad, thinking they were normal stories. 

But as an adult, she finally understood what her ancestors went through to seek freedom.

"As a child, it was like 'OK,' because we heard it so often," said Cain, now 58 and a singer.

"It's not until I became an adult that it was like me realizing the horrors that they actually had to go through to get here."

Many of Cain's ancestors escaped slavery from the United States and settled in Ontario through the Underground Railroad between 1800 and 1863. 

"These people were born in 'non-free' states with one exception, and married and/or had children in Ontario before 1863," said Robbert Kramer, a genealogist by hobby and Cain's husband.

"This makes it highly likely that these people came with the Underground Railway, since they were not allowed to travel freely from non-free states to Canada."

Cain's paternal great-great-great grandfather, Andrew Lucas, was one of many who made the journey. 

Cain also discovered her ancestors loved music. Pictured are her father's siblings, known as the Royal Canadian Harmony singers. (Submitted by Tracy Cain)

He was a slave in Tennessee and served as a body servant to the seventh president of the U.S., Andrew Jackson. Lucas was responsible for Jackson's personal needs such as clothes and assisting him with other necessities for his well-being. 

Another ancestor is African-Canadian Joseph Mallot, who was born Alabama and was one of the first settlers to live at the Queen's Bush Settlement, an area between Waterloo County and Lake Huron where more than 1,500 freed slaves and enslaved Black people established farms in the early 19th century. 

Church a place of spiritual connection 

Fifteen years ago, Cain took her older sons on a trip to North Buxton at The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, where they discovered more about their ancestors. Cain's maternal great-grandfather, Rev. Samuel R. Drake, was one of the pastors at the British Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The churches were in southern Ontario cities such as Toronto, Guelph, Woodstock and Brantford, Cain recalls. Her home church is in Brantford, where her family would gather and have spiritual times. 

The grandson of Andrew Lucas, Cain's great-great-great grandfather, was Peter Lucas, right, a famous bass player. He's shown with his wife Francis Bradley, their daughter Evelyn Melrose Lucas, Cain's grandmother, their sons Albert Lucas and Saul Lucas. (Submitted by Tracy Cain)

Historically, faith has brought together many enslaved people and their descendents for informal prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins. 

It was then that Cain realized how important this was for her and her family.

"In slavery days, that's the only way they could get together and communicate with each other because, the slave masters wouldn't want them to gather without being supervised," she said. 

"Church was one of those ways that they were able to gather for freedom, and of course they would have their own codes and songs that would help them get through."

An example of one of those songs is Wade in the Water, a spiritual song used as a code for Black slaves when Harriett Tubman helped free many of them, as they got off the trail and into the water to prevent the masters' dogs from finding them. 

"Wading in the water meant that you were taking the scent of the dogs off of you," explained Cain. "It talks about 'God's going to trouble the water,' basically saying, 'Don't worry, He's got you, He'll trouble the water but you will be fine because God is in the water.'"

Cain is set to perform the song at the Guelph Black Heritage Society's annual Juneteenth celebration

'I'm so proud of my ancestors'

Congregation members of the former British Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1920s. (Salem Chapel BME)

After learning about the journey of her ancestors, Cain says, she is proud of them because she realized the magnitude of their sacrifices. 

"I'm really amazed at how they had the energy, tenacity and wisdom to be able to make their way to Canada, and then make a home for us," Cain told CBC News. "Yes, they escaped from slavery, which was hard, but it was also up here because there were temperatures they weren't used to."

From generations to generations, messages of how to behave, act and adopt strong work ethics were passed on in Cain's family as a result of the Underground Railroad. 

For Cain, it's unfortunate the same message continues to be passed down, since she's raising four Black children. 

"The fact that I told my boys the exact same message that my parents told me, and unfortunately you have to keep telling the same message over and over again," said Cain.

"We are progressing, but we still have a [long] way to go." 

Cain wants her ancestry to help her children be aware of their past heritage, and be encouraged to accomplish their goals and aspirations. 

"They can never use [our history] as a crutch as to say, 'Well, I'll never get ahead,'" she said.

"They can use it to encourage themselves, to know that they're not alone, to know how far we've come, while we have further to go." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

BBIC Banner


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?