When I was in grade school, I was fascinated to learn about the Underground Railway and the fugitive slaves whose spiritual songs’ secret metaphors heralded escape to freedom.
According to folklore, "Steal Away to Jesus"
gave a clue that the coast was clear. Similarly, for those forbidden to read or write, the lyrics of songs like "Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” were as useful as a printed instruction manual. The song’s title may be a reference to the Big Dipper constellation. By following the line of the stars on the heel of the Dipper, determined fugitives could align themselves to the North Star and a path to freedom in Canada.
Source: Patrick Hendry via Unsplash
Later, when I lived only a short drive from Uncle Tom’s cabin in Ontario and began exploring the history of African Americans who settled in villages like Dresden and Shrewsbury, I stumbled on snippets of heroism from those who helped them along the way.
Near Chatham, Ontario I met a man who had purchased and preserved a home that backs onto the Thames River emptying into Lake St. Clair. In the mid 1800s it had been a safe house. Fugitives paddled up the river in the dead of night listening anxiously for the baying of pursuing hounds, until they glimpsed a designated marker on the south bank. It indicated the entrance to a tunnel that ran from the peril of the river to the promise of shelter.
I went into the basement of that sturdy house and, I swear, heard the echo of long ago songs of deliverance.
Eventually, I realized the role the church played in those days. From the late 1700s gentlemen like William Wilberforce, an evangelical Anglican in England, advocated politically for the abolition of the slave trade and ultimately of slavery itself.
But in Upper Canada prejudice persisted. As late as the mid-1850s, despite legislation to integrate schools, white children went to school while those of former slaves didn’t. In response, another evangelical Anglican, Benjamin Cronyn (soon to be the first bishop of the Diocese of Huron), established a school for the children of former slaves in London, Ontario.
In the autumn of 1856, 11 black children filed for the first time into a classroom on the premises of the British garrison, where Victoria Park is now located. A year later, 400 children entered the school. By 1859, the school was disbanded because legislation was finally being enforced.
Cronyn’s method was to remedy the injustice of his day by advocating for the enforcement of existing law and drawing attention when it wasn’t. How appropriate today that the office of IJM Canada
is about five minutes walking distance from the former site of the school and within earshot of the church bells that still ring where Cronyn railed from the pulpit against injustice.
It seems fitting, as Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation, that we should acknowledge the efforts of those from Canadian history who advocated for adherence to the rule of law. International Justice Mission does the same in 17 communities around the world. When laws are enforced equitably, the poor are protected.
The owner of the facility was taken into police custody. A government official, who was present at the time of the operation, later remarked on the physical condition of the young boys who had been forced to work. He looked at their battered palms and reflected sadly, "At an age when they should be holding pens in school, they have thorn scars.”
Christians identify with the image of innocent, wounded hands against rough wood. And as a Canadian, when my voice joins in the anthem’s familiar words, "True North, strong and free…” I cherish the freedom this 150-year national anniversary represents.
But, not all are yet free.
Determination and heroism are still needed.
Don’t you and I have within us what is required to finish the fight?
This post is part of a series celebrating Canada 150.