Amherstburg, Ontario was a critical gateway for runaway slaves who turned the Canadian border into a source for their freedom. Approximately 2,000 black men, women, and children found refuge in Canada after the War of 1812 and many settled in Amherstburg. Many of the men and women who came to Amherstburg brought knowledge of tobacco cultivation with them when they fled Kentucky and Virginia. In 1827, the tobacco industry in Amherstburg failed and both black and white planters suffered. Economic instability aggravated already tense racial conditions, prompting the creation of Canada’s first black churches.
Somewhat forgotten today, many of Ann Arbor’s citizens were active abolitionists and anti-slavery activists in the nineteenth century. John Allen and Elisha Rumsey founded “Annsarbor” in 1824 and by 1845, 3,030 people called the city home. By 1860, only about 100 black settlers lived in the area, a portion of whom lived in a segregated area outside of the city called “Lower Town.” Black Ann Arborites were active in civic life and collaborated with white abolitionists to advocate for African American rights.
Battle Creek was the home of abolitionist Erastus Hussey and, later, of Sojourner Truth. Many religious migrants from New England and New York settled in and around Battle Creek following the Second Great Awakening. Baptist and Methodist preachers were the first to make settlements there in the 1830s. Quakers also settled in the region and were very involved in the Underground Railroad. Much of Battle Creek’s connection to the Underground Railroad comes from Erastus Hussey and the legacy of abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
Buffalo’s location on the shores of the Niagara River made it an inevitable place for anti-slavery activity. Beginning in the 1830s Buffalo abolitionists helped many freedom seekers across the river to freedom in Canada. The city also hosted several anti-slavery events including the National Negro Convention and the Liberty Party Convention. William Wells Brown was perhaps the city’s most prominent abolitionist.
Cass County, Michigan has an extremely rich history of Underground Railroad activity. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Cass County’s black population rivaled Detroit’s. Cass County abolitionists harbored thousands of freedom-seeking men and women, and thousands of blacks both fugitive and free settled in the area as early as 1836. Three prominent centers of Underground Railroad activity in the county were Calvin Township, Vandalia and Ramptown.
Detroit was one of the most active and important cities on the Underground Railroad and was a frequent destination for many of the nation’s leading abolitionists. Detroit, and Michigan as a whole, had a history of slavery under both French and English rule. It was officially abolished in 1837 when Michigan entered the Union, but Black Detroiters had long been fighting for freedom. In 1833 they saved Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn from being re-enslaved in Kentucky, efforts that led to the city’s first race riot. Second Baptist Church formed in 1836 and birthed many of the city’s abolitionist organizations.
Oberlin, Ohio was a center of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity. Reverend John Jay Shipherd founded Oberlin in 1833 at the height of the Second Great Awakening. Oberlin Collegiate Institute attracted intellectuals and theologians to the town, allowing Oberlin to be a haven for abolitionists and slaves seeking freedom. Several aspects of life in Oberlin were integrated: white and black children attended school together, African American residents could vote locally and attend Oberlin Collegiate. Estimates suggest that 3,000 formerly enslaved people found refuge in the small town.
Ripley, Ohio is believed to be one of the most active Underground Railroad Settlements in the region. Though very close to Kentucky, Ripley boasted two African American communities just outside of its town limits. Samuel Gist manumitted several hundred of his slaves, and his children purchased land around Ripley to establish free black communities. These former slaves provided clothing, food and shelter for those making their way to freedom.
Rochester’s proximity to Lake Ontario made it an ideal destination for fugitives seeking freedom in Canada and thus home to many abolitionists and anti-slavery societies and newspapers. Isaac and Amy Post and the Porter family sheltered runaways in their homes and helped them into Canada. These families were also founding members in Rochester’s anti-slavery societies including the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Rochester was also home to famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his newspaper the North Star.
Runaway slave and Methodist preacher Josiah Henson helped establish the free black community of Dawn and its manual labor school, the British American Institute, near Dresden, Ontario in 1842, making it one of the earliest fugitive slave settlements in Canada. Dawn’s leaders searched for ways to stabilize the town without relying on white benefactors. Josiah Henson, Hiram Wilson and James Caning Fuller created the British-American Institute, which provided the community with jobs and its citizens with income. The school suffered a series of controversies but by the time of its closing, Dawn had become a self-sustaining settlement.