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This small plot of land has been transformed into a fascinating tourist attraction that offers visitors a trip back in time to where the story began — Africa. Visitors are then led both verbally and physically on a journey that takes them symbolically across the Atlantic, then through the slave states toward freedom. They are guided through the woods with a narrative that instills the urgency of a fleeing slave. They learn of the creative and frightening feats that these fugitives would perform on their trek northward. They emerge triumphant at the border of the heaven sung about by enslaved blacks, namely Canada.

Patrons culminate their tour at the original log cabin built in 1846. They are also invited to experience the Freedom Train Museum (housed in an old railway car on site), the Sir John Graves Simcoe Educational Resource Log Cabin, and the Peace Chapel built in honour of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a frequent visitor to the museum.

The Walls story is featured on two videos. “The Road to Discovery,” the first video, is a creative rendition of the John and Jane story, filmed at the historic site. It highlights some fascinating aspects of the journey taken by visitors at the Puce museum. The second video is a NASA (National Aeronautics Space Administration) production entitled “The Underground Railroad: Connections to Freedom and Science.” It focuses on the scientific skills that enslaved men and women used to navigate the Underground Railroad. Explanations of mathematics, geometry, astrology, and horticulture are given as they related to this specific challenge. It also encourages youth of today to take consider science to fulfil their own dreams.

In January of this year, Bryan participated in launching a mutual respect campaign with the Toronto Police Service. His efforts were focused on the creation of an audio/visual CD-ROM entitled “Only the Rainbow.” This project is a tribute to the heroism that prevailed in the aftermath of 9/11. It is also a recruiting tool for the Toronto Police Services. Included on it are two original compositions and a short digital video. The full album “The Road That Led To Somewhere” by Stephen Bard is forthcoming.

More recently, the novel, videos and CD, along with information on their sister museum, Motown Museum, Hitsville USA in Detroit, have been combined to create a teachable unit. This package has been introduced into the elementary school system and is currently being taught in roughly thirty schools in Essex County as well as some in the Toronto area. Winston Walls and his wife, Chris, have written a teacher’s guide to support the implementation of this educational program. A field trip to the museum often transforms this unit of study into a tangible experience for the students.

It is the family’s hope that people will leave their historic site with a “greater appreciation of the importance of freedom and the importance of making the best of their talents in whatever arena they are working in or are challenged by.” And it seems to be working. In fact, some youths later reported having had revelations of sorts at the museum – even overcoming feelings of personal despair. Vincent DeForest explains this potent connection felt by many in the NASA video. He states that “this is not an African-American story but a story of liberation” — one that is creating a universal impact, despite its geographically and ethnically specific details.

The Walls family is quick to point out that Canada had inherited a legacy of nondiscrimination, which predated, and thus facilitated, the Underground Railroad movement. Dr. Bryan Walls emphasizes the fact that as far back as 1793, John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, was instrumental in passing Canada’s first antislavery law. It outlawed the buying of new slaves, and immediate freedom was granted to those slaves who outlived their masters. This legislation laid the foundation for the abolition of slavery in Canada. Bryan’s belief is that “democracy may not be…[perfect], but show me a better [system]. Canada may still have problems in terms of race relations, but there is no better country in the world for a visible minority to live than in Canada.” On January 17, 2003 Dr. Bryan Walls learned he had been appointed to the Order of Canada for his efforts in preserving Canada’s black heritage. He had previously been honoured with the Order of Ontario.

The destruction of the institute of slavery was certainly not the work of one single group. Rather it was the culmination of many dedicated, courageous individuals working through various facets of society for the common good. John Freeman and Jane King Walls surely played an active role in the roots of this movement. Their descendents have inherited their strengths. The family’s desire to preserve their own heritage has mushroomed into an ongoing effort to promote the legacy of mutual respect and “equal sisterhood and brotherhood of humankind.” John and Jane could not have imagined where this road to somewhere would one-day lead.

If these Walls could talk today, they certainly would be pleased that their legacy is living on.

Note: John Freeman Walls never allowed himself to be photographed for fear of being discovered and returned to a life of slavery in the South. The drawing of John on our Black History Cover Page was created by a Detroit-Windsor Police composite artist in 1985 after speaking to Aunt Stella and Frank Walls. (This image was taken from the jacket of a video about his life and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site “The Road to Discovery”) Pictured above their portrait is a photo of the log cabin John built in 1846. It stands today as a focal point of the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum in Puce. The original sketch of John is displayed within it.


 

 

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