Spirit Quest —On the underground railway

 

Spirit Quest
 
Black slaves took on 'the full armour of God' when
they escaped to Canada and fought for dignity here 
 
By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective
 
24 February 2012 — As many of us know, The Underground Railroad has nothing to do with London’s Tube, Paris’ Metro or Toronto’s Silver Sewer Rat that transport millions every day through the bowels of large cities. It was, instead, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. 
 
When my son Stephen was studying in Keen, New Hampshire, he lived in a great old mansion out in the country that had been such a safe house. A tunnel from the house to the river was the underground passage that aided those travellers to reach the river where often under the cover of night they made their way north. Nevertheless, in so-called free states their liberty was still compromised by bounty hunters who sought to recapture  the slaves and take them back south where a hard welcome awaited them. 
 
The use of the Underground Railway was at its height between 1850 and 1860.  One of the most favourite destinations was British North America  where slavery was prohibited. The  border between our two countries was long and had many possible places for unobtrusive crossings.
 
Many of the former slaves headed as far north as the Village of Sydenham, now Owen Sound, Ontario. It was the most northerly terminal of the Railroad. It is only recently that the contribution made by those early settlers to the county and city’s development  and growth have been  acknowledged.
 
In honour of these refugees turned settlers, a commemorative cairn in Owen Sound’s Harrison Park was unveiled on July 31, 2004 at the very place where the annual Emancipation Picnic has been held since 1862.
 
I lived for eleven years (1990 to 2001) in Owen Sound where I was minister of Knox United Church. On a special  occasion I attended worship at the British Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the spiritual home for many of the people who had arrived from the south. It is a small but vibrant congregation.
 
Owen Sound has come a long way. It is significant to note that Ovid Jackson, a black Guyanian, a teacher, was elected mayor of the city in 1983. He served for ten years, following which he sat as a Liberal in the federal parliament for another ten years. 
 
I experienced a sense of kinship with these Canadians inasmuch as I too had escaped with my parents and other anti-fascists from the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia and had found a safe haven in Canada. Indeed, Canada has received refugees throughout its history. Many like myself have come to this country through the gateway of Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
 
The Maritimes had also been a destination for black refugees. Read Lawrence Hill’s exciting novel The Book of Negroes that follows his protagonist from Africa to America as a chained slave and then on to freedom in Nova Scotia. She did not stop there but became a force for the abolition of slavery, encouraging Wilberforce in Britain to end the slave trade.  
 
Lawrence Hill’s father Dan Hill, a human rights specialist, historian and public servant, was prominent in the movement to overturn racial discrimination in Canada. He became the first full-time chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. 
 
While I served as chaplain at Dalhousie University in the latter 50s I still found more than mere vestiges of discrimination. For instance, no blacks would be served in the barbershop at the Nova Scotia Hotel in downtown Halifax or be allowed into some of the better restaurants.  
 
On the outskirts of the city there were a number of small black communities such as Preston, where schools only went to grade six. It wasn’t expected that any blacks would go beyond that, however, when many of them did they found that they were ill equipped for the standard of education in “white”  schools. A number of my friends from a Halifax church and I drove out in the evening to help these children with their homework.
 
In  Halifax itself, on the shore of Bedford Basin, was located a hamlet called Africville. It was peopled  by former  slaves. I cringed  when I first visited it and saw the very low standard of housing without basic utilities. Nevertheless, it was a very vibrant community. Though its buildings were eradicated  in what was called urban renewal in the 1960s, and its residents displaced, the community spirit continues to thrive  even today through annual gatherings. In 2002 the former site of Africville was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Government of Canada.
 
During my time in Owen Sound, Joe Sealy, a highly successful jazz musician, composer, recording artist and radio broadcaster, gave a wonderful concert. His Juno Award winning Africville Suite was described as “the most important jazz album released in Canada this year (1997).”
 
This week marks the end of Black History Month, a time of awakening to the difficulties endured by the forbears of these people as they made their way to freedom, the struggle they underwent to rise from their low status to becoming valued members of our Canadian mosaic.  It wasn’t easy and was fraught with many disappointments en route.
 
There are some who question my use of the word “Spirit.” What does it mean? What is spirit? To inquire into the history of blacks in Canada gives exciting evidence of the movement of the Spirit.  The will power and determination to overcome enormous obstacles requires a spiritual vitality. 
 
In a previous Spirit Quests I described Spirit as an energy informed by love, certainly a love of justice and freedom. May that Spirit continue into the future and help overcome the infatuation with power and wealth. 
 
All over the world people are struggling against demonic forces. The Apostle Paul spoke of  Principalities and Powers, Rulers of Darkness, of “spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6 : 12) that constantly take on flesh and blood as is seen in Syria and many other places around the globe. 
 
Paul encouraged us to “take on the full armour of God.”  Those black slaves had a perfect understanding of the meaning of that scripture which we “sophisticates” may frown upon, but it was packed with SPIRIT.
 
The Spirit Lives!, dare I say Hallelujah? 
 
Hanns Skoutajan
 
SQ 24/02/12 
 

 

 

  

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