Stories of Black people in general is unwritten in Canadian history, however, this claim is particularly true for Black women. Our understanding of Black women and how they came to Canada is lionized through names like Harriet Tubman, who took an estimated 19 trips into slave territory and recused over three hundred slaves from bondage. Her incredible life and deeds took a course that few women would or could emulate, however, her courage and tenacity in the face of all odds was certainly not unique in the history of African-Canadian women. The problem here is that we rarely are taught about much more than Tubman herself, as her name alone has come to symbolize in many ways the struggle for all African people working toward freedom and justice.
Between 1815 and 1865, it is estimated that tens of thousands of African-Americans sought refuge on Canadian soil. These settlers were free Blacks migrating from northern free states & fugitive slaves, for whom the road to freedom was made possible via The Underground Railroad (UGRR). The UGRR took place during 1850 to 1860 as a response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which made it legal to capture Black people, free or not, and return them back into slavery. The Railroad was comprised of a series of secret routes or ‘trains’ through northern states to ‘terminals’ in Canada. After reaching non-slaveholding northern states, some Blacks received aid through organized systems that spirited them to freedom, which involved ‘conductors’ who personally transported ‘passengers’ from point A to B or ‘station-masters’ who received and hid arrivals at transfer points (Ch. 2, 42). It is important to mention that many of these freedom seekers actually received little or no aid, resulting in the slave's’ own locomotion north and into Canada. The UGRR undoubtedly saved many African-Americans, however the number of women who were able to seek freedom to Canada was proportionality fewer than men.
Why? Deborah Gray Write gives insight into this female fugitive phenomenon. Firstly, the age profile of the average fugitive was 16-18, the peak years for childbearing at the time. In a slave family, the decision of who could escape was based on who could run without encumbrance; as you could imagine, a pregnant mother or a mother travelling with a young infant was much more difficult than running freely in full health. As Adrienne Shadd puts it, “a fugitive mother simply did not have the same assurances that her babies would be properly cared for if she became a fugitive” (Ch. 2, 43). And the fact that more women were unable to take flight has its explanation in the nature of female slavery itself.
William Still, a Black abolitionist from Philadelphia ran a well-organized UGRR depot with his wife that aided hundreds of fugitives by providing food, shelter, clothing, and free passage to destinations in the North. It is through William Still’s dairies, that we are able to put Harriet Tubman’s life in context as one of the untold thousands of previously unknown women who endured similar risks and hardships and exhibited similar courage and tenacity in the fight for themselves and their people.
I wanted to conclude with one case in particular that has stuck with me. Margaret Garner, a woman who may not have had the same ability to escape and save as many people as Tubman did, should be seen as a woman with the same courage that Tubman had. Garner escaped from Kentucky with her husband, in-laws, and four of her children. Sadly, she was captured in Ohio. Knowing the horrors of slavery, she attempted to ‘save’ her children the only way she knew how by grabbing a butcher knife and slitting their throats, with the intention of finishing with her own. Although she was over-powered after killing only one and sent back into bondage, along with her remaining three children and the dead body of the fourth, her story is one that is important in understanding the extents to which Black woman resisted slavery and attempted to save those around them. Women who risked their lives in escaping freedom or in helping others escape are much higher than you might expect; Harriet Tubman was only one of many who fought for free life in Canada for themselves and their families. The antislavery work and the struggle against racism was particularly burdensome, yet, the vibrancy of the communities and Black women’s push for self-improvement, courage, tenacity, and racial advancement was exceptional.