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The Promised Land? Windsor's City Hall Square -
Terminus of the Underground Railroad

by Michael Gladstone White

black-students.jpgIt's been 150 years since the Congress of  the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act,  which immediately transformed Windsor's present City Hall Square, into a major terminus of the Underground Railway.

This Act was promoted by Southern congressmen, stung by their constituents' complaints that their black slaves were escaping to the "free states" in the North. The Act gave slave owners, and their agents, the right to track down and arrest fugitive slaves anywhere in the United States. As a result, free blacks living in the northern states, as well as runaways, were often kidnapped by bounty hunters and taken away to slavery in the South.

Almost overnight, thousands of black Americans, both fugitive slaves and free, followed the Underground Railroad through Ohio, Indiana or Illinois, into Michigan, and to Windsor - "the Promised Land" - to escape the racial injustices.

En route they were hidden in the cellars or barns of sympathetic farmers and townspeople, who guided them from one "station" to another. In Detroit, they were usually hidden in the livery barn of Seymour Finney's, on the northeast corner of State and Griswold streets. After hiding in the stable until the way was clear, the runaways were escorted across the Detroit River to Canadian sanctuary.

In April 1853 a Detroit newspaper announced the safe arrival in Windsor of a group of refugees and requested help for them. "At 3 o'clock this morning, $15,000 worth of human merchandise, consisting of 29 able-bodied men and women, fresh and sound from the Carolina and Kentucky plantations, arrived on the other side [Windsor], where all our sympathizing colonization friends may have an opportunity of expressing their sympathy by bringing forward donations of ploughs, farming utensils, and pick axes and hoes, as all these emigrants can till the soil."

In April 1861 the Maple Leaf, of Sandwich stated: "A dark cloud hung around the Town of Windsor on Monday morning, in the shape of about 200 negroes, of all ages, and colours, and of both sexes, who had just arrived in this blessed land of freedom, from Chicago and other parts of Illinois. 300 more were to arrive last night, and more are to follow, numbering in all over a thousand..."
Windsor's City Hall  Square was then known as "Barrack Square".

Originally consisting of 4 acres, the Upper Canadian Government had acquired the site on February 4, 1840 from William Gaspe Hall and J.P. Woods for 320 pounds. Barracks were immediately built to accommodate 106 soldiers, along with a hospital that could serve the medical needs of 10 men.

Most black refugees arriving in Windsor were destitute with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They were housed in these barracks-which had been transformed into a refugee centre-until they could find jobs and accommodation elsewhere, usually along the adjacent McDougall and Mercer streets.

In 1855, Benjamin Drew, a Boston journalist, estimated that of Windsor's 1,400 residents, 259 were black with 22 black refugee families in Sandwich. Four years later, it was estimated Windsor had 700 to 800 black residents out of a total population of 2500. In addition, there were large numbers living as farmers in Sandwich East (currently comprising that part of Windsor east of Glengarry).

Near the barracks the black refugees built their churches-the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the First Baptist Church. The "Square" also contained the Walker House tavern, a popular black social spot founded by black resident, Edward Walker.

Because blacks were refused admission to Windsor schools, renowned black activist Mary Ann Shadd established a private school in one of the barracks in the fall of 1851.

A staunch opponent of segregated institutions, Shadd emphasized the accessibility of her school to children of both races.

Inadequate funding however forced Shadd to appeal to the American Missionary Association for assistance, from which she received $125 annually until 1853.

During the spring of 1853 Shadd closed her school as a result of "a regular and well executed series of attacks" on her image. With its collapse went the best opportunity for Windsor's black children.
Compounding their plight was an ugly incident in August 1856, when white residents, alarmed at he increasing refugee population, burned down the barracks.

That blacks were relegated to the lowest priority in the educational system became readily apparent in Windsor in 1855 when the community decided to construct 3 new schools, one each "for Protestant, Catholic, and coloured pupils respectively." No action ensued on the facility for black students until 1858, when the school board rented a dilapidated shed, just 16 feet by 24 feet, for all 45 black children.

In January 1859, Windsor's white trustees refused the request of fugitive slave Clayborn Harris, to admit his son to the Protestant school. Supporting Harris' action, a committee of Windsor blacks wrote the Education Minister who responded that there was nothing he could do as long as black educational facilities existed.
Finally, in 1862 a separate schoolhouse was at long last completed at the present City Hall Square for the black children of Windsor. By 1864 it had 150 pupils.

In 1883, James Dunn, a black Windsor businessman tried to compel the Board of Education to admit his daughter Jane Ann Dunn to the Central Public School, which occupied the site immediately west of the "colored school".

The application was dismissed by the court, the judge accepting the Board's contention that there was insufficient space to admit any "colored" residents. Schools remained segregated in Windsor until 1888.  Ironically, Central Public School was later converted into Windsor's city hall from 1904 until 1956, when it was demolished and replaced with the current building.

Why all this history? A number of months ago, two historic plaques were placed at City Hall Square, detailing its history. Nothing was stated of the black experience.

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