Passage to Freedom

Exhibiting May 1 – 30, 2016

Hosted by the Memphis In May International Festival and the National Civil Rights Museum, this exhibit is sponsored by the Canadian Heritage, Welland Historical Museum and Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Travel back to the 1800s to learn about slavery, the escape route called the Underground Railroad, and the challenges freedom seekers faced if they finally reached the "Promised Land" of Canada. In the 1850s approximately 40,000 Black refugees entered Canada from the United States, helped by such famous conductors. Although the identities of manyconductors involved remained unknown some, such as Harriet Tubman, were notorious. Thousands of slaves risked their lives to escape slavery.

The Underground Railroad was a secret, informal network of people who assisted fugitive slaves escaping to the freedom of the Northern States and into Canada. Some donated food and gave directions, others provided shelter or transport. Fugitives traveled at night to reduce the risk of capture and to follow the North Star to safety. They hid in compartments in wagons, coffins, church pews and barrels and even concealed themselves under hay and produce. The Underground Railroad was illegal, controversial and tore communities apart, pitting neighbors against one another. Much of the organization was done in Canada because it was safe.

Passage to Freedom features slave narratives, a large model of a slave cabin, models of a plantation and safe-house, interactive components and clues to the secrets about fleeing to freedom. The exhibit is divided into three parts:

  • Slavery: stories of capture and life as a slave;
  • Escape: illustrations and narratives about the dangers of escape; signs, codes and symbols used; the messages in spiritual songs; the importance of the stars; the inventive escape methods including a box like the one used by Henry "Box" Brown to mail himself to freedom; and
  • Freedom: stories from former slaves and their descendants who found freedomand prosperity in Canada, and also those who found discrimination, racism, and even lynching.

Josiah Henson was born into slavery but escaped with his wife to Dresden in 1830 where he became an ordained minister. In 1849 Henson wrote his autobiography. The famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is based on Henson's experiences.

Two prominent black newspapers played a major role in dispersing information to the new settlers. The Provincial Freeman promoted integration and opposed segregated settlements. Voice of the Fugitive provided information on the Underground Railroad and advice for finding employment and settling in Canada.

The Refugee Slaves' Friends Society was founded by Elias Smith Adams, the first mayor of St. Catharines, in 1852. The group offered financial, housing and employment assistance to fugitives.

Harriet Tubman,the famous conductor known as the "Moses of her People," lived in St. Catharines, Ontario while working on the Underground Railroad. After escaping to freedom herself, Tubman was active in the fugitive aid societies and organizations. She had a large price on her head.