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The Legacy of John Freeman Walls
If These Walls Could Talk

by Laryssa Landale

The Journey

The story of John Freeman Walls is as unique as it is familiar. It is but one of several million stories of enslavement in the southern United States during the 1800s. John Walls left the south with his master’s widow and her four children in 1842. In 1845 they landed in Amherstburg and he claimed his right to freedom. A year later the family settled in Puce where John, a skilled carpenter, built a two-story log cabin home.

John’s life of hardship in the aptly named Troublesome Creek, North Carolina was unfortunately commonplace in those times among those of African descent. His story begins with the close friendship between John and his master’s son, Daniel, both born in 1813. It was this relationship that provided John with his first experience of interracial equality and respect – a rare gem in those troubled times. The uncommon friendship between slave and slave master’s son set the stage for this saga. Though it would not always serve to ease the burden of enslavement, in the end, this bond provided John with his freeman papers and entrusted him with Daniel’s wife and children. The circumstances that arose from Daniel inheriting the Walls’ plantation, and his untimely death, would ultimately usher John onto his incredible journey.

The story’s uniqueness is furthered by John’s flight to freedom – scholars estimate a mere 40,000 to 100,000 slaves travelled the road to liberty in the north. (By 1860 some four million enslaved blacks lived in the southern United States.) Unlike the main character from the groundbreaking 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” John Walls was not reconciled to die within the confines of racial discrimination. The mere fact that he would challenge the status quo and strive to make his dream of a better life become reality makes his story extraordinary. The details of his perilous journey make it amazing.

Enormous courage and strength were required on the road north. The slave patrollers and their hounds were often near. The fate that awaited a captured fugitive was unspeakable. To make John’s situation even more unusual was the fact that his future wife Jane was white and his former master’s widow. They travelled with her four white children and Corliss, a house slave from the Walls’ plantation. Such an unmistakable group of sojourners would not easily go unnoticed.

The first half of the journey they navigated themselves – with only those words from John’s childhood to guide them. For weeks they travelled under the cloak of night before stumbling upon sympathetic abolitionist Quakers Ephraim and Mary Stout in Indiana. It was through them that John and Jane learned of the Underground Railroad. This secretive, unorganized movement of abolitionists – some white, some free blacks and some formerly enslaved blacks – offered food, shelter and guidance to those seeking freedom. Railroad terminology was adopted by the movement as a measure to confuse slave hunters. (The image of a secret underground railroad was so effective that in the 1800s, many people actually believed that a train ran from the south to freedom in the north.)

This network of individuals employed several ingenious methods to secretly convey directions and information to other members and to the freedom seekers fortunate enough to encounter the Underground Railroad. By the 1830s several routes to the northern free states and Canada had been developed. Travellers were being sent into the south to teach songs encoded with information to enslaved blacks. One such song was “The Drinking Gourd Song” which instructed slaves to leave in winter or early spring and follow the North Star along the bank of the Tombigbee River, and look for dead trees that were marked with mud and charcoal drawings. The following verses led the freedom seekers to the Ohio River, usually a year later, when it was frozen over and, thus, more easily crossed. On the other side they were reportedly met by “conductors” from the Underground Railroad in the free states and transported to Canada.

The Walls family was not fortunate enough to have had previous knowledge of this great freedom movement when they set out on their journey from Troublesome Creek in the spring of 1842. However, they did benefit greatly from it on the remainder of their journey. It was also from their safe harbour with the Stouts, and with new knowledge of underground “stations” along the way, that Jane and Corliss were able to return to the Walls’ plantation and lead seven more toward freedom.

Their long road reached freedom in the summer of 1845 on the shores of Amherstburg. From there the Walls family would settle in Puce and build a homestead that still stands today. John and Jane raised ten children there and engrained in them the necessity of love and harmony toward all. Their home would also become a terminal on the Underground Railroad for other blacks seeking salvation from slavery.

Dr. Bryan Walls chronicled his great great grandfather’s
life in “The Road That Lead To Somewhere”

The Legacy

John and Jane’s journey inspired many – both during their own lifetime and in the more than 160 years since they first headed north in search of a dream. Strong beliefs of equality and freedom were engrained into their children, and have been passed down through eight generations so far. These descendents are expressing those same convictions in several creative and powerful ways.

In 1976, Dr. Bryan Walls began four years of research that culminated in the book “The Road That Led To Somewhere.” His Aunt Stella, granddaughter to John and Jane, told the majority of the stories included in this epic to the author.
She was about twenty-three years old when her grandparents passed away in 1909 and 1910. And those years had been richly steeped in oral history. Bryan’s grandfather Frank, some thirteen years Stella’s junior, confirmed many of the stories that form the basis for the book.

In 1980, the family self-published Bryan’s fictionalized biography of his great-great-grandparents’ fascinating lives. Written from the point of view of his Uncle Earl, 1952 Canadian heavyweight boxing champion, the book allows the author to span over a century and comment not only on the treacherous journey that his ancestors endured to reach a land of freedom, but also about the legacy that has been passed down through generations of their descendents.

This documentation of the Walls’ family’s beginnings in Canada not only provides their relatives with a concrete family history, it also offers local, national and international communities a glimpse into a significant part of their own past.

This epic novel made its way into the hands of a government official that felt it an important part of Canadian and American history. Thus, the land on which the original two-story log cabin was built became a historical site. This property, and the desire to preserve it, were catalysts for the creation of the book. Through the diligent efforts of Bryan, two of his brothers, Allen and Winston, and with the aid and constant support of the rest of their families, the historical site has since been expanded to include an Underground Railroad Museum.

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