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Black History, Alvin McCurdy Collection: From Slavery to Settlement - Page Banner

Slavery to Emancipation

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 25.

An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude
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An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and
to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude
Statutes of Upper Canada
33 George III, Cap. 7, 1793
Archives of Ontario

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.

Program of PROGRESS, Oldest Negro, Publication in Canada, [ca. 1901]
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Program of PROGRESS, Oldest Negro
Publication in Canada, [ca. 1901]
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-3-0-32
Archives of Ontario


While human slavery withered in Upper Canada, it continued to flourish in portions of the United States. As early as the 1780s, those who succeeded in escaping slavery were smuggled into territory controlled by the British.

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.

Photo: Main Street, Amherstburg, 1865
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Main Street, Amherstburg, 1865
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-16-6-2-44
Archives of Ontario, I0024850

The various Fugitive Slave Acts passed by the Government of the United States made it a crime in any state or territory of the U.S. for an individual or group to aid the escape of slaves. As the penalties and risks increased, the railway became more secret. However, once the refugees reached Canada, they were beyond the power of American courts.
Masthead of Voice of the Fugitive
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Masthead of Voice of the Fugitive
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-16-9-35
Archives of Ontario

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.

Photo: Levi Veney, ex-slave who lived in Amherstburg, taken at J. D. Burkes' store
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Levi Veney, ex-slave who lived in Amherstburg,
taken at J. D. Burkes’ store, 1898
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-16-3-5
Archives of Ontario, I0024830

Park House, Colchester South, a slave refuge during the 1800s, [ca. 1950]
Alvin D. McCurdy fonds
Reference Code: F 2076-16-6-1
Archives of Ontario, I0024851

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.

In this Exhibit -