Friday, July 15, 2016

A Stop at the Underground Railroad

Connie and I spent one day sightseeing the area and came upon this out-of-the-way stop in the tiny rural town.   A sign along the road read, "Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum".  How intriguing.


Located on several acres, there are a total of 16 buildings set aside for this museum, all run by two sisters, Carolynn and Sylvia Wilson plus...

...this beauty--more wolf than domesticated lapdog.

  Carolynn Wilson is a co-owner of the museum and was our guide.   The museum was started by an uncle, Howard Sheffield, in 1990 and it is now the passion of the two sisters.

The first building was a renovation of a meeting hall.

and focused on the African beginnings of the black American.

As we walked, Carolynn explained, " The journey from Africa, across the Atlantic on slave boats to the auction block,  life on a plantation, and finally to freedom in Collingwood, Ontario and Owen Sound,  the last northern terminals of the Underground Railroad, are what this museum is about."

It is also a memorial to Carolynn's and Sylvia's family and a very touching history of a time and movement that needs all the attention we can muster.

Many of the items on display have been brought or mailed to the museum by persons who have visited here and were moved by the experience.


These are absolutely real and sent by families that can point to the history of their use.  I was struck by how little we know regarding the sacrifices it took to  get free from these shackles.  

Whips, ankle chains and locks, neck rings with chains, all used on fellow human beings.

Carolynn suggested we try and lift the weight--it was almost impossible to get it off the table.  The attached ring went around someone's neck.  

This amazing quilt traced the passage of the Underground Railroad...

The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad.  It got its name because its activities had to be carried out in secret, and railway terms were used by those involved to describe how it worked.  The network of routes extended through 14 northern states and "The Promised Land" of Canada, beyond the reach of runaway-slave hunters.  

There is legend around the designs in the quilts that were common during that era.  The designs are supposed to indicate when and where it was safe to travel.  It is hard to know for sure because very little was written down.  The lack of literacy (slaves were forbidden to learn how to read or write), and extreme dependence on secrecy made word of mouth, the only safe way of sharing information.

Those who most actively assisted slaves to escape by way of the 'railroad' were members of the free black community , northern abolitionists,  Presbyterian, American Baptists, Methodists, and Quaker churches, and Native Americans. 

Refugees, settlers, black pioneers, sailors,  military men,  the many families that came this way looking for a better life, are commemorated on these stones...

It was at this point I thought about all the statues throughout the south that venerate the southern generals--mostly sitting on their horses with swords held high above their heads--elaborate statues that are highlighted in front of government buildings or proudly displayed in town parks and squares.

Yet these brave men and women have only a name carved  in a rock.  

In 1850 a healthy trained slave was worth $2500.  That was an enormous amount of money for that time.

Slavery had been outlawed in Ontario, Canada in 1793 and in all of Canada by 1834.


By 1850 over 100,000 slaves had escaped to the northern states and to Canada.  At one point 30 people per day were crossing by steamboat to Ft. Malden, Ontario just a few miles from Detroit.  

There were many free slaves in the Northern states by the mid 1800's.  However, plantation owners began offering huge rewards to try and stop the runaway movement.  Vigilante groups were formed,  runaways and free slaves alike were captured, and auctioned to or sold back to the southern plantation owners.  Illegal auction houses--the most notable was in Southern Illinois--were set up throughout the north and if a free man had papers proving his status then the documents were simply destroyed.

Laws were written by a predominately slave-holding  congress to aid the vigilante's in their mission.  Even Northern states began to write laws making it illegal for a runaway slave to seek residence in that state.  (Once again, money buys a congressman)

Not all were supportive of the railroad.  Frederick Douglas, noted black writer, statesman and escaped slave was very critical.  He felt the efforts to free slaves (through the UGRR) enlightened the slave owners more than it helped the slaves, making the owners more watchful oppressors.

The most famous 'Conductor' of the UGRR was Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave who was known as Moses of her people.  She reportedly made thirteen return trips to the south and helped an untold number of slaves escape--safely.  At one point the rewards offered by slaveholders for the capture of Harriet Tubman totaled $40,000!

In the first of a dozen small cottages we found the display of boat models handcrafted by Richard Sheffield and his grandson Eddie Sheffield.

Collingwood and Owen Sound waterways provided vast opportunities of employment for the many new arrivals.

The Sheffield men, family of Carolynn and Sylvia were  employed by the shipbuilders.

These models were remarkable in their detail and each represented an actual vessel.

The history, the challenges, the heroism portrayed in these rooms and through these collections is beyond words.

Items that have been donated have stories attached that beg to be told. 

Who played this--and where?

Who shot this gun?  What war?  Did he live? 

I had seen very few African Americans in the entire time I had been in Canada.  If there was such a big Exodus into Ontario then where had they all gone? 

Well, partly into the big cities.  Many did not stay.  Once the Civil War began many joined the Union Army.  And after the war others returned back to the south to find family and friends that were left behind.

This very unpretentious, friendly museum captured my imagination. 

I kept thinking what a fantastic goldmine of stories that could be told by some TV channel.




It is very hard for me to put these last 3 photos in the Blog.  I hope everyone reading this understands the insulting put-down that they originally intended.  There were other examples like this in the museum but I thought these were the worst.

I wish now that I had copied down what was written on the note behind her head.  I bet it was from the owner.

This was an utterly fascinating museum and I thank Carolynn and Sylvia for their passion in putting it together.

The history alone is worth the visit but the love and pride you both feel for your family comes through as well.  Thank you for the opportunity to meet you.

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