Feb 9, 2023

Mapping the Stories of Formerly Enslaved Black London, Ontario Residents Focus of New Research

In 1856, Benjamin Drew, a U.S. abolitionist, travelled to Canada to transcribe the oral stories of formerly enslaved Black refugees. Among them, 16 individuals who originally settled in London, Ont. Their narratives, recorded in Drew’s book, A North-Side View of Slavery, describe their former enslavers, their escapes and how they made it to Canada.

But what of their lives afterwards?

With Drew’s accounts as their starting point, Western researchers Miranda Green-Barteet and Alyssa MacLean are working to trace the paths these self-liberated individuals took after arriving in London. By documenting their journeys through an interactive website hosted by Western Libraries, Green-Barteet and MacLean aim to address a longstanding gap in the history of Black Londoners.

Beyond the Underground Railroad

By the 1850s and ‘60s, British North America (Quebec, Nova Scotia, Ontario and New Brunswick) had become a refuge for a growing number of formerly enslaved people fleeing plantations in the American South. Many had escaped to freedom with the help of a secret network of free Blacks and white sympathizers, known as the Underground Railroad.

For those interested in the history of this period, the successful outcomes of the Railroad are the final chapter in the stories of those escaping enslavement.

For Green-Barteet and MacLean, that’s where the story begins.

“One of the things we are trying to do, is to ‘complicate’ the idea of the Underground Railroad,” said MacLean, a professor in English Studies. “There’s a sense that people who were trying to free themselves from slavery would basically run across the Canada-U.S. border and once they got to the Canadian side, it was like crossing a finish line.

“We’re trying to show it wasn’t a terminus. People’s lives continued. Once the Civil War ended (in 1865), people had to decide what to do ─ some of them went back to live in the States, some went back to collect family members.”

Permanent digital exhibit

Guided by the narratives from Drew’s book, Green-Barteet and MacLean are conducting extensive archival research on the formerly enslaved Black Londoners to create Western’s first Black Londoners Digital Archives.

It’s a project they’re completing with the help of staff in Western Libraries Archives and Special Collectionsand their research assistants, undergraduate student Kathleena Henricus and PhD candidate David Mitterauer.

Henricus is compiling a timeline of historical events aligning with the Black newcomers’ arrival while Mitterauer is combing census data and city directories to track their next steps. The researchers hope to engage more students in research opportunities with the support of the Western Black Student Leadership University Experience (Western B.L.U.E.) program.

The team is using Arc GIS Story Maps, a cloud-based mapping and analysis tool, to combine Drew’s narrative text with images, maps and media to develop the permanent, interactive website.

The site will chart where these new Londoners originally lived and trace their relationships to each other and the rest of the city. This content, accessible across Western, London, and Canada, will provide a fuller historical record of Black Londoners.

You can read (a lot) more in an article by Keri Ferguson published in the Western News (Canada) web site at:

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