Promised Land? Windsor's City Hall Square -
Terminus of the Underground Railroad
Michael Gladstone White
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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".
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.
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.
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).
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,
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.
staunch opponent of segregated institutions, Shadd emphasized the
accessibility of her school to children of both races.
funding however forced Shadd to appeal to the American Missionary
Association for assistance, from which she received $125 annually
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.