Early historical accounts describe black fur traders operating out of Detroit, Niagara and Michilimackinac in the 1740s and 1750s, when the region was still part of New France. In the 1780s, following the end of the American Revolution, Loyalists migrated to the region now known as Ontario, where they settled along the St. Lawrence, the Niagara, and Detroit Rivers. Some of these loyalists brought slaves with them.
The Province of Upper Canada introduced one of the first prohibitions on slavery in North America in 1793, outlawing the importation of slaves and freeing the children of slaves on reaching the age of 21.
An order issued by the Attorney General, John Beverley Robinson, in 1819, declared that all black residents of Upper Canada were free and protected by British law.
Emancipation Day commemorates the 1833 abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire – freeing nearly one million enslaved people. Today, it is celebrated annually in Amherstburg and other communities in Ontario and throughout North America on the first of August with festivities that typically include parades and picnics.
Many enlisted in Loyalist units and eventually moved to British North America. After the American Revolution, an informal network developed that helped these escaped slaves move north. As time passed, this network became known as the Underground Railway. Amherstburg, at the western tip of Upper Canada, became one of the key entry points for the passage of escaped slaves to freedom.
This view of Amherstburg shows how the community looked in the last days of the Underground railway.
Finding documentation on the Underground Railway is difficult. It operated in secret within the United States and had to operate quietly within Canada to avoid border incidents. Most of the material available shows some of the people involved, and where they might have lived or sought shelter.
One of the few direct sources of information on the activities of the members of the Underground Railway was contemporary newspapers, such as the Voice of the Fugitive, which was the first black-owned and -operated newspaper in Ontario. It was founded and published in Sandwich and Windsor by Henry Bibb, who escaped, first to Detroit and then to Canada, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The newspaper first appeared on January 1, 1851, and ceased publication in 1854.
Levi Veney was one of the former slaves who made his way to Upper Canada. He found refuge in one of the houses established to provide shelter and immediate relief to those crossing the border. The Park House in Colchester South was an important way station for those entering the province.
The black community in Upper Canada supported the Crown in times of crisis. During the War of 1812, black militiamen served at Queenston Heights. During the Rebellion of 1837, fear of annexation to the United States and a possible return to slavery reinforced the already strong Loyalism of the black community and its willingness to serve in the militia. Part of Alvin McCurdy’s interest in history was driven by the failure of historians to record the participation of black people in these conflicts.