The Detroit River, Essex County and the Underground Railroad
The Detroit River region was the passageway to Canada for thousands of African Americans. Starting soon after the War of 1812, freedom seekers traveled across the river into Upper Canada (Ontario). Many settled at towns along the river and in villages on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair.
There were important African Canadian settlements at Sandwich, now part of Windsor, and at Amherstburg, a village that grew up around Fort Malden. Others lived in Anderdon, Maidstone, Gosfield and Malden Townships, and around Colchester and Harrow in Colchester Township. The Baptist Church at Colchester (by 1827), the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church (1848) and First Baptist Church (1849) at Amherstburg, and the Sandwich Baptist Church (1851) were built by local African Canadian communities. They served not only as faith centres, but also lecture halls, schools, and places where charitable organizations and anti-slavery groups would meet.
Formerly enslaved men and women worked hard to build new lives for themselves and their children. When schools in the district did not accept Black children because of prejudice, independent schools were founded. African Canadians were very active in their communities. They were innkeepers, kept livery stables and hotels, published newspapers, and owned barbershops and hair salons, dressmaking establishments, grocery stores and worked as carpenters, stone masons and other construction-related jobs. Many were successful farmers. Others were stone quarry workers, helped build railroad lines, worked on ships on the Great Lakes and provided transportation and other services.
Because of their location near the Detroit River, Black settlers in Essex County were very involved in the Underground Railroad. There were important organizations such as the Amherstburg Anti-slavery Baptist Association. They worked closely with African American groups on the US shore, and particularly with the very active community in Detroit, to help bring freedom-seekers across safely and provide them with food, clothing and employment that would to get them started in their new homeland of Canada.
Today, twin monuments commemorate both the conductors and the Underground Railroad passengers. The International UGRR Monument was sculpted of granite and bronze by renowned African American sculptor, Ed Dwight. The companion pieces were installed with great ceremony on facing shores of the river: One called The “Gateway to Freedom” at Detroit and the other, the “Tower of Freedom” at Windsor ” in 2001.
: An enslaved African American man who escaped all the way from Alabama to Upper Canada (Ontario) in the late 1830s.
: A free African American immigrant from the United States who became a successful businessman and an important person in the Black community in Canada West (Ontario) during the mid-1800’s.