Beyond the Underground Railroad: A History of Black Settlement in Nineteenth Century Amherstburg

The Department of History's Local Black History Intern, Karleigh Kochaniec, will have her exhibit on display at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum until December 31, 2023.


A common narrative surrounding Canadian ties to the Underground Railroad is the misconception that Canada was superior to the United States in terms of the treatment of individuals of African descent. However, this is far from the truth. What people often do not realize is that the enslavement of persons of African descent occurred in what we know today as Canada for over two hundred years. A local example includes the British Colonel Matthew Elliott, who brought roughly sixty enslaved individuals with him to Amherstburg from the United States. It is also important to note that there was a flourishing Free Black population living in Amherstburg in the early 1800s.

In 1850, the United States passed a law known as the Fugitive Slave Act, which required authorities to seek out and capture Freedom Seekers searching for asylum in Northern states. As a result of the existence of the Fugitive Slave Act and the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in the British Empire in 1833, the number of Freedom Seekers searching for asylum in Canada increased dramatically after 1850. Oftentimes, Freedom Seekers travelled to Canada across the Detroit River to Amherstburg, which was one of the narrowest points of the river. This influx of Free Black individuals into Amherstburg throughout the nineteenth century resulted in pockets of settlement developing in the town and across Windsor-Essex.

Beyond the Underground Railroad: A History of Black Settlement in Nineteenth Century Amherstburg showcases nineteenth century Black settlement in Windsor-Essex with a specific focus on Amherstburg. Pockets of settlement within Amherstburg are not often the focus in ‘mainstream history’ and as a result, are not as well-known as other settlements in Ontario. This exhibit will focus on four former settlements located in Amherstburg (Mount Pleasant, Haiti, Marble Village, and George-King-Seymour Streets), as well as the experiences of a woman named Julia Turner, who owned several properties throughout Windsor-Essex.

This exhibit was created by using pre-existing studies from academics who specialize in Black Canadian experiences, as well as the work of local historians and researchers. Additional sources such as directories, land records, newspaper articles, and the Amherstburg Freedom Museum’s catalogue and family history collection were used to bridge gaps in the research. A special thank you goes out to the staff at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, in addition to Edward Milo Johnson, Irene Moore Davis, Elise Harding-Davis, Debra Honor, Doris Gaspar, Meg Reiner and the Marsh Historical Collection, and Kathy and John Parks for their efforts in researching and preserving local history, which were vital to the creation of this exhibit.

Beyond the Underground Railroad is only a small portion of the work that has been done to map out Black settlement in Windsor-Essex. This exhibit continues in an online format, which features an interactive map that also highlights settlements found in Essex (formerly North and South Colchester) and a small portion of Windsor (formerly Sandwich). The online map provides a more detailed view of Black settlement in Windsor-Essex. Visitors can explore the online map by scanning the QR code provided.

Rewriting the Narrative

Beyond the Underground Railroad intends to highlight the self-sufficiency and agency demonstrated by early Black settlers in Amherstburg. A common narrative is that Freedom Seekers settling in Canada were helpless, but this exhibit challenges that narrative by highlighting how these individuals paved their own way and were influential in the development of the region. In highlighting the experience of Julia Turner, this exhibit also demonstrates that the experiences of Freedom Seekers and settlers were not defined by a collective experience, but rather individual stories.

This exhibit also intends to show that Black history in Canada does not end with the Underground Railroad. All too often we fail to look at the lives of Freedom Seekers after their arrival in Canada and forget to question what happened in the post-Underground Railroad period. Through this exhibit one will see that churches were built, settlements developed, families grew, and businesses were established. Although there are few physical remains of these historic landmarks, such as churches and cemeteries, this exhibit aims to demonstrate how this history is still very much alive in the present through memories and family connections.


The church was a central aspect of Black settlement in Amherstburg and is often described to have been the ‘heart of the community.’ It served many purposes and it was where Black individuals found jobs, community events and activities were held, children received an education, and activist causes often began. Black individuals were not always welcome in ‘white’ churches because of existing prejudices and racism. This made it necessary to create their own places of worship, which include homes before communities constructed their churches. Churches also acted as stops or ‘final stations’ along the Underground Railroad, offering assistance to Freedom Seekers upon their arrival, but also a space for support and guidance in times of need.


Often found alongside churches, cemeteries help preserve the spirituality and history of Black communities in Canada and often act as the only remaining physical evidence of a settlement's existence. Cemeteries also challenge the idea of Canada as a ‘Promised Land’ where everyone was equal, as some cemeteries were segregated or had ‘white’ and ‘Black’ sections. An example of this includes the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which for some time, had a separate section within the cemetery for Black individuals to be buried. Despite the separation, Black settlers found ways to honour and celebrate their ancestors and their contributions. Unfortunately, most of the remains of Black cemeteries in Amherstburg have since been developed or farmed over, but there are still some in Windsor-Essex that continue to be preserved. With efforts from community members, the memories of Amherstburg’s Black cemeteries continue to live on.


In 1850, Ontario’s education system faced great change with the amendment of the Common Schools Act. It was at this time that the Separate Schools Clause was added, which allowed the establishment of separate Catholic, Protestant, and Black schools. This clause was used by common (publicly funded) school trustees to support racial segregation, as some white residents pushed for the creation of racially segregated schools. According to Dr. Natasha Henry-Dixon, provincial courts would uphold the practice of segregated schools and repeatedly refused the admission of Black students to common schools, despite efforts from Black parents to fight against racially segregated schooling. If not in a schoolhouse, Black schools were sometimes located in community churches. In Ontario, segregated schools were often in poor condition as government funding was usually focused on the improvement of schools attended by white students. The last racially segregated school in Ontario, S.S. #11, was located in Colchester and finally closed in 1965 due to the efforts of former MPP Leonard Braithwaite and the activism of local community members, parents, teachers, and organizations who pushed for the Separate Schools Clause on segregated schools to be removed. Given how recent the closure of S.S. #11 is, there are still individuals who attended S.S. #11 living in Windsor-Essex today.


As we have learned, schools in Ontario could be segregated by law, but segregation existed in different forms, including socially enforced segregation. According to Dr. James Walker, business practices may have changed over time and in different regions, but people could still be denied service based on the colour of their skin. Because businesses often refused service to Black individuals, there was a demand for Black-owned businesses in Amherstburg, especially with the increase of incoming Freedom Seekers after 1850. In Amherstburg in the mid-1800s, there were Black-owned businesses such as Henry Turner’s grocery store, Clara Hawkins’s dressmaking business, and John Gant’s barbershop. Black residents in Amherstburg were described as having a “self-reliance mindset” and “priding themselves on their industry,” thus it makes sense for Black individuals to have created their own businesses to meet the growing needs of their community.


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