tv Canadian Border During Reconstruction CSPAN August 11, 2019 11:50pm-12:01am EDT
>> manhattan college professor adam aronson talks about his research project examining the lives of slaves who escaped to canada and what factors motivated them to stay or return to the united states during the reconstruction era. this interview was recorded at the organization of american historians annual meeting in philadelphia. >> the title of your paper here at the meeting, "crossing the border after the underground railroad, african north americans returning from canada." so people heard about the underground railroad, but why were slaves trying to escape to canada and how were they able to do that? >> the underground railroad was
really a whole set of things together. it is roads, some rails, with people trying to get out of slavery and find ways to be safe. sometimes that was just in the northern states. sometimes that was in mexico. and most famously, it was going all the way to canada. a completely different country, being free from the chance they could be recaptured and brought back into slavery. >> what was that journey like? where are slaves at this time, and how are they making the journey into canada? >> in the decades before the civil war, slaves were really everywhere in the united states. we think of them mostly being in the south and rural places, but enslaved people are in cities. they are brought into northern cities, some even sort of rented into the west and the northwest. they are really everywhere, and often they would take the opportunity, working with a network of people or by themselves, to escape slavery and seek that freedom they can find. >> what is a story that stands
out to you in your research of a slave making that journey? >> my research is really focused on what happens after they are already in canada, but one of the settlements in what becomes canada is the town of buxton. you have a minister who takes a group of enslaved people from the south and he decides slavery is no longer what he sees as ethical. he is going to go to ontario, set up a new community for these formerly enslaved people and help them set up an agricultural settlement of their own. >> what is life like for them? you say setting up communities. what does that entail? >> these were places where there were not a lot of euro-americans. they may have been native settlements, some of these places. but they are homesteads. rural, agricultural communities. but there are also people who escaped slavery and go to toronto and montreal. it is really a very diverse set of experiences north of the border and i am trying to find people who were in all of these places. >> what is their life like there
compared to if they had stayed and gone somewhere else in the united states? >> with the fugitive slave act of 1850, people begin to feel the north is not safe. they began to think people are going to get kidnapped out of northern cities and they cannot just be safe in ohio or new york, but they need to go all the way into canada. similarly with the dred scott case, there is the sense that there is going to be no such thing as free territory. that anywhere, whether it is california, illinois, people need to get out of that and move to a completely different country, so they think canada is the chance to have the freedom they cannot have anywhere in the united states anymore, before the civil war. >> what is their life like? what sort of freedoms are they having? how are they living the lives? >> trying to make it the best they can. the group in the farm communities that are starting to farm some of the same things they farmed in the south.
tobacco being grown in ontario. and in a place like toronto, people are doing domestic work, people are trying to find opportunities to go to school and move up, and there is a group that go all the way to what we now know as british columbia and get involved with the gold rush out there and seek their fortune out on the coast. >> do they return to the united states, and when? what time? >> we think of the underground railroad, and the civil war, and sort of take our eyes off the people involved with the underground railroad. but they continued to live, much later into the 19th century. and a lot of them came back into the united states. some of them come to the northern cities like chicago, detroit, buffalo. some of them go to washington, d.c., which during the civil war and reconstruction is a major place for african-americans, and some of them go all the way back into southern communities to try to reconnect with people they had known or find groups they think are in a position to make change and be part of that change.
i am really tracking all kinds of movement back out of canada after the underground railroad. >> why do they want to come back and what gives them hope? >> a lot of them thought of themselves as members of the united states. they really wanted to be u.s. citizens, part of the united states. slavery was making that impossible. but with the civil war and the end of slavery, there were a number of political leaders who say this is our chance. we are going to go and be part of a reconstruction government, we are going to be part of the opportunity for black people to have equal rights in the united states. >> what is it like for those former slaves returning versus the people who had stayed in the united states and then were freed? did they have different lives? >> that is a big question. i really have to figure out how to understand. people who have been in the community in boston or upstate new york and whether the experience of being in canada and under the british empire, having a different education
system, a different set of rights, how that impacts how people work together. it is ongoing research and i am trying to figure that out. because i think some people felt very safe and free in boston or in new york or chicago, but others really felt like there was something different about being in canada. it gave them an opportunity to think of themselves as british or as american, as citizens of the world, and i am sorting out what all that means to them. >> in your initial research, have you seen what the returning americans expect life to be like? >> some of them really hoped the promise of the end of slavery will mean equal rights for all. marianne carry is someone who has been a very active journalist in ontario, fighting for fugitive slaves and equal
rights in canada. she then moved to washington, d.c., after the civil war and decided she wanted to go to howard law school and get an education, as an african-american women in that period, and fight for d.c. statehood and civil rights. she sees it as a constant civil rights battle. other people come back to the united states because they think it will be better for a job. it is not a political move. some of those people come from windsor just across the river into detroit, seeing opportunities in michigan they didn't see in ontario. so there's a whole mix of motives and stories, and i'm trying to bring them together. >> and what kinds of jobs are they returning to, in america? >> in the late 19th century, there are african-americans coming out of canada who are porters on the railroads, and some working as hotel staff. they are seen as having a british accent, british education, seen as something fancy. but by the turn of the 20th century, we have right before the great migration, we see william perry, the first african-american who works for the ford motor company, because he happens to know henry ford.
he's from amherst, ontario, part of this group that comes back from canada into the united states. the ford company celebrated perry, but they haven't told the canadian part of the story. i am trying to think about these people, their border crossing is part of having structured their lives. >> how do you go about researching this? >> it's interesting because a lot of people care about where their families are. people did not necessarily care if they lived in michigan or ontario. it was an interesting process, or if they were moving from new york to niagara falls. we have lots of interesting photographs, people at picnics, homecomings, having annual reunions with their cousins across the border, i'm looking in newspapers, finding political documents and arguments saying i spent this time in canada and that's how i think about things differently. it little pieces of evidence
that i'm trying to weave together into a bigger story from some people we know well and others we don't know about much at all. >> did the canadian government keep track of who was coming or leaving the country? are there records there you are looking at? >> the u.s. census is interested in your race but not her religion. the canadian census does not mark race, but does mark religion. it's an interesting difference. in the canadian census you could see people born in the united states, and they might be ame or baptist, traditional african-american church groups. and the embassy in these towns, after the civil war in these tiny towns of ontario that are mostly black americans, you can
see the american government in canada. >> thank you very much. >> thank you. >> you're watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. >> next on the presidency, former secret service agents talked about protecting the first family and the challenges they faced. speakers include larry, who prevented a 1975 assassination attempt on president gerald ford. the george w. bush presidential center hosted this event. >> here at the bush center we have a wonderful relationship with our partners at smu. it's so nice to have dr. gerald