The Black Canadian Experience in Ontario 1834-1914: And They Went to Canada - Page Banner

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The Underground Railroad, while not a real means of transportation, was a freedom movement relying upon the bravery of free and enslaved Africans, and the many who were actively opposed to slavery - the abolitionists whether of Native, European or African backgrounds. 

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Narrative of the Life and Sufferings
of Rev. Richard Warren, 1856
PAMPH 1856 #42
Archives of Ontario Library Collection

Cover: Narrative of the Life and Sufferings of Rev. Richard Warren, 1856

When the British Imperial Act of 1833 was passed in Britain, it ended the enslavement of Africans in the British Empire which included Canada. Effective August 1st,1834, it was the first global human rights legislation impacting the situation of Africans and other enslaved peoples.

An image of the original hand-written act appears to the right and a printed copy can be seen below.  

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1833 British Imperial Act
Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, U. K.

Original hand-written 1833 British Imperial Act
1833 British Imperial Act

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1833 British Imperial Act
Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, U. K.


Photo: Reverend Horace Hawkins, [ca. 1890s]

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[Reverend?] Horace Hawkins, [ca. 1890s]
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-16-3-4
Archives of Ontario, I0027805

When it became known that Canada offered the chance for freedom, carefully guarded excursions were quickly organized with a minimum of detail being shared.  Many slave narratives end, “and they went to Canada”, implying that self-freed Africans landed only in some unknown northern area or in the border cities of Windsor, Collingwood, Toronto or St. Catharines.  However, Canada usually meant any number of rural or urban areas in Ontario. 

Photo: Remains of Old Mission House, Sandwich, 1895
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Remains of Old Mission House, Sandwich, 1895
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076, Box D-4
Archives of Ontario, I0027877


Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was the best selling novel of the 19th century and helped to raise the general awareness of slavery. The book was inspired by the life of Reverend Josiah Henson who had been a slave for 41 years until, in 1830, he and his family escaped to Upper Canada via the Underground Railroad. Henson became synonymous with "Uncle Tom" the central character of the novel.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Inside Cover

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Inside Cover
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-15-0-130
Archives of Ontario


The story of Black Canadians is one that has been pieced together through oral histories, stories passed down through generations, and documents created by a variety of groups, individuals and official sources. In order to protect their means of arriving in Canada, former enslaved Africans were often secretive.

Excerpt from the emancipation papers of Susan Holton, Ohio, 1848

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Excerpt from the emancipation papers of
Susan Holton, Ohio, 1848
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-1-0-15
Archives of Ontario
See text version of emancipation papers of Susan Holton.

Today, much of what we know about the history of Black people in Ontario can be found in secondary sources and survives because of the significance the Black community has placed on their history.

Oil on canvas: Mrs. Pipkin, who was formerly enslaved, 1870s
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Mrs. Pipkin, who was formerly enslaved, came to
Toronto and became a domestic worker at Spadina House, the home of financier James Austin, 1870s
Anne Arthurs
Oil on canvas
From the collection of a descendant of the artist.
Private Collection.


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And they Went to Canada | Freedom Under the Lion's Paw | Settlement and Community
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