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The Underground Railroad

Next Stop, Toronto!

by Adrienne Shadd; Afua Cooper & Karolyn Smardz Frost

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african american, canada
list price: $19.99
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback eBook
published: 2021
ISBN:9781459748965
publisher: Dundurn Press
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Description

Stories of the hopeful, brave people who fled slavery and made Toronto their home.

“An engaging and highly readable account of the lives of Black people in Toronto in the 1800s.” — Lawrence Hill, bestselling author of The Illegal

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! is a richly illustrated book that explores Toronto’s role as a destination for thousands of freedom-seekers before the American Civil War. This newly revised edition traces pathways taken by people, enslaved and free, who courageously made the trip north in search of liberty, and offers new biographies, images, and information based on a 2015 archaeological dig in downtown Toronto. Within its pages are stories of courageous men, women, and children who overcame barriers of prejudice and racism to create homes, institutions, and a rich and vibrant community life in Canada’s largest city. These brave individuals established organizations not only to help newcomers but to also oppose the ongoing slavery in the United States.

Based entirely on original research, this book offers fresh insights into the rich heritage of African Americans who became African Canadians and helped to build Toronto as we know the city today. This exciting new edition will be of interest to readers young and old who want to learn more about this unexplored chapter in Toronto’s history.

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Excerpt

Deborah Brown: A Fugitive Slave Woman

On December 8, 1908, The Evening Telegram featured an elderly woman named Deborah Brown in a story on the old Seaton Village community. Mrs. Brown had died in 1898 and is reported to have been 111 years old at the time of her clench. She was considered to be the oldest resident in Seaton Village and her house was said to be the oldest building in the village. Deborah Brown was a former slave from Maryland, United States. She had escaped to Canada in the mid-18oos with her husband, Perry, when they learned he was to be sold. The couple moved to the Township of York, north of Bloor Street, the northern boundary of the City of Toronto at the rime. They lived in the same one­storey frame cottage on Markham Street near Bathurst and Bloor for over 50 years.

Nowadays it is hard for us to imagine that when Deborah and Perry Brown first moved to the area it was rural farmland. During the 187os, their neighbourhood, by then known as Seaton Village, was bounded by Bedford Road on the east, Christie Street on the west, and Davenport Road to the north, with Bloor Street as its southern perimeter. In 1888, Seaton Village and the Town of Yorkville, which had developed just to the east around Yonge and Bloor streets, were annexed to the growing City of Toronto. In a span of fifty years, the region where the Browns lived had gone from being on the rural fringes to being in the centre of the city.

Deborah Brown worked as a washerwoman, and her husband was a labourer. The Browns were a working-class family judging from their occupations and their standard of living. Deborah Brown could not read or write and her husband Perry was probably just as illiterate. They purchased the house and a quarter-acre lot on which they lived for a sum of $50 in 1870. Their house was a modest wooden cottage with a garden, and they owned two pigs. Deborah and Perry Brown were part of a large Black community that was comprised of a working class, a middle class of skilled craftsmen and shop owners, and a tiny upper class of wealthy families whose businesses had been very successful. These wealthier Black Torontonians often owned a great deal of property that they rented out.

Deborah Brown’s work as a washerwoman was one of the jobs that women did to earn money but it was hard, backbreaking work. Prior to the invention of electric washers and dryers, washing clothes involved hauling and heating a large bucket of water and mixing in a lye-based soap. Clothes had to be washed, rinsed, dried and ironed. Many women were able to earn a living by taking in other people’s laundry. However, Mrs. Brown lived during the Victorian era of the 1800s. At the time, a woman’s primary responsibility was her own household, and it was frowned upon if a woman engaged in waged work. Nevertheless, most Black women had always worked. Their income was needed to help support the family.

Later in life, Mrs. Brown was listed as a nurse in the city directory. It is not likely that she studied nursing formally, but she would have gained a great deal of knowledge over the years in curing various sicknesses through the use of herbs, roots, and the like. It would not have been unusual for her to apply her considerable experience and know-how to nurse family and friends back to health.

The Browns were of the Wesleyan Methodist faith. They probably attended the Black churches in downtown Toronto from time to time — certainly on special occasions like Christmas, Easter and Emancipation Day, the time set aside in early August to celebrate the British Act of Parliament of 1833 that freed slaves throughout the British Empire. However, Deborah Brown also attended the Methodist church in Seaton Village. The Evening Telegram article noted that even in extreme old age Mrs. Brown continued to be a member of the Sunday School, and delighted in getting up o n t he platform with the children at Sunday School anniversary celebrations. Most Black people at that time belonged to either the Methodist or Baptist faith.

Deborah Brown had at least one child that we know of, Sarah Brooks. An eight­year-old child named William H. Brown, born in the United States, lived with Deborah and Perry in 1861. But because of Deborah’s age of 56, it is not certain whether William was her child or grandchild. He may even have been a nephew or great nephew. Unfortunately, after 1861, William was not listed in the same house­ hold as Deborah Brown again, and we are not sure what happened to him.

More is known about daughter Sarah, however. She was born in the United States and she in turn had a daughter named Amelia, who was also American-born. According to the census records of the time, it is known that these women were living on Centre Street in St. John’s Ward, just north of today’s City Hall. Sarah was 56 and Amelia was 23 years of age in 1881. Both were widows. Like Deborah, they too worked as laundresses. We think that Sarah Brooks did not come to Canada with her parents, and that she may have been left behind in slavery.

Rather than making a “return trip” south after the Civil War, some African Canadians brought their family members north to live with them in Canada after the Emancipation Proclamation. On January, 1863, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, freed the American slaves in the states that had rebelled against the Union.

 

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Contributor notes

Adrienne Shadd is a researcher, writer, curator, and editor. She is co-author of We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History. Adrienne lives in Toronto.
Afua Cooper is a poet, performer, scholar, historian, and a professor at Dalhousie University and is co-author of We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History.
Karolyn Smardz Frost is an archaeologist, historian, and award-winning author who teaches at Acadia and Dalhousie. Her book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. She lives in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

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Editorial Review

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! stands out as an engaging and highly readable account of the lives of Black people in Toronto in the 1800s. Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper and Karolyn Smardz Frost offer many helpful points of entry for readers learning for the first time about Black history in Canada. They also give surprising and detailed information to enrich the understanding of people already passionate about this neglected aspect of our own past.

— Lawrence Hill, bestselling author of The Illegal
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About the Authors

Adrienne Shadd

Adrienne Shadd is a historian, writer, curator, and researcher. She is the author of The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton; author-editor of the children’s books Freedom and Early Civilizations of Africa; co-author of We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History; and co-editor with Carl James of Talking About Identity: Encounters in Race, Ethnicity and Language. She has curated several important exhibits, including ... and still I rise: A History of African Canadian Workers in Ontario; Black Mecca: The Story of Chatham’s Black Community; and “I’ll Use My Freedom Well,” a new exhibit at the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden. Freedom won the Gold Medal Moonbeam Children's Book Award for Multicultural Non-Fiction. Adrienne lives in Toronto.

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Afua Cooper

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Karolyn Smardz Frost

Karolyn Smardz Frost is an archaeologist, historian, and award-winning author. Now an adjunct professor at Acadia and Dalhousie, she is the former bicentennial visiting professor at Yale University and served as senior research fellow for African Canadian History at York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute. Her biography of freedom-seekers Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. She co-edited The Archaeology Education Handbook: Sharing the Past with KidsOntario’s African-Canadian Past; and the landmark Canada–U.S. collaborative volume, A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland. Karolyn’s most recent book is the award-winning Steal Away Home, which tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Cecelia Jane Reynolds who arranged her own flight to freedom and found a new home in Toronto. She lives in Nova Scotia’s beautiful Annapolis Valley.

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