Monday, 9 March 2015

A JOURNEY ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

AFRICAN CANADIAN HISTORY

BY BLAIR NEWBY

During the iSchool’s Black History Month Program, those in attendance had the opportunity to hear Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost discuss the harrowing tale of Thornton and Lucie Blackburns escape to freedom.  Throughout my lifetime, I have read countless descriptions of fugitive slaves’ flights and throughout each one there are a couple similarities. First and foremost, there was the will and determination to find freedom. Secondly, within many there was a sense of fear and anxiety, because with each step that a fugitive slave made towards freedom there was a great possibility that their journey could be halted by capture. And if you were caught, the punishments included, but were not limited to, whippings, dismemberment, or being sold like chattel once again.

The Journey to Freedom
As a child, I remember reading Benjamin Drew’s “ The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada”, and with each narrative that I read I had thoughts of my ancestors and wondered what that journey to freedom was actually like, but I knew I would never know exactly. And then in 1996, I met a man who could provide a glimpse into the mindset of the former slaves. On May 4th, 1996, historian Anthony Cohen set out a two month journey. Travelling along the trails and pathways that his ancestors had once traversed, Cohen traveled by foot, by boat and by train. However, instead of procuring a train ticket, Cohen traveled, like Henry “Box” Brown, in secret inside a wooden a crate. He embarked on his twelve hundred mile trek in Sandy Spring, Maryland and on July 7th, he arrived in Amherstburg, Ontario. Throughout his entire journey, he traced the steps that tens of thousands of fugitive slaves had once made. 

Historian Anthony Cohen discussing the escape of Henry "Box" Brown
In 1998, Cohen set out on a more ambitious trek from Mobile, Alabama to Windsor, Ontario. Ten years later, Cohen would lace up his sneakers once more. This time, however, he followed the route that his great, great, grand uncle Patrick Snead made. Snead, who was a slave of African, Jewish, Cherokee and Irish descent, escaped from Savannah Georgia in 1849 by passing as a white man. Pulling from an 1856 interview with Snead, Cohen was able to reconstruct his uncle’s journey.

Cohen will be the first to tell you, that his experience was clearly not the same as the tens of thousands of fugitives who escaped to Canada. However, that said, his goal was to gain a better understanding of what fugitive slaves had to endure during their escape and having read his work “The Underground Railroad: A Personal Journey Through History” he achieved his goal

Historian Anthony Cohen  

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