John Freeman Walls Historic Site
To some the Underground Railroad is thought to be just that, a series of underground railroads that were built to hide and transport former slaves that were seeking to escape from the southern areas of the United States. In actuality it was a web of hidden, interconnected, man-made paths that were shrouded by forests and brush which assisted in the concealment of former slaves until they could reach a Refugee Terminal. These routes had two things in common. They all headed north and towards the free soil of the northern United States and Canada; and at various points along the way they all intersected with Refugee Terminals where runaway slaves could take shelter and would be given food and clothing. Despite the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which stated that “any federal marshal who did not arrest on demand any person believed to be a runaway slave could be fined $1000. As for the runaway slaves themselves, they would be arrested and stripped of any and all civil rights”. During the era of the Underground Railroad, the site was among one of several major termini in Southwestern Ontario for fugitive slaves. These locations represented the end of a slave's long journey to freedom where he/she could receive shelter and support until they were ready to move on and begin their own new lives in Canada. As it developed, the site became an important nexus for both the local black community and newly arrived fugitive slaves from the southern United States. Today, many of the original buildings remain, and in 1985, the site was opened as an Underground Railroad Museum. The site forms part of the African-Canadian Heritage Tour in Southern Ontario.
In the mid-nineteenth century, black slaves were fleeing the United States by the thousands and coming north to Canada via the Underground Railroad, the vast majority of these fugitive slaves arriving in Southwestern Ontario, crossing mainly over the Detroit River and to a lesser extent the Niagara River. After Emancipation in the British Empire in 1833, the number of refugees from slavery coming to Canada grew, and local leaders in the region became concerned that the influx of refugees, estimated to be around 30,000 in 1852, made it more difficult for Blacks to find jobs in Canada. As early as 1846, meetings were held by local church leaders to help remedy the situation, and later that year, the Refugee Home Society was founded. The Society was a community-based organization that gathered funds to purchase land in Southwestern Ontario in order to sell it to refugee slaves at a fair price. Their philosophy was to assist any and all refugees from American slavery in obtaining permanent homes and to promote their moral, social, physical, economic and intellectual elevation. The first properties bought and sold by the Refugee Home Society were fifteen kilometers southeast of Windsor, Ontario, in the Townships of Maidstone and Sandwich. These were followed by communities in Puce River, Belle River, Sruce River, Pine Creek and Pelet. The main families that ran these communities were John and Jane Walls, Jacob Cummings, Emanuel Eaton, Leonard Harrod and Thomas Jones.
The Refugee Home Society was dissolved in 1864. Some families migrated to Haiti and others to various parts of Canada. The American Missionary Association withdrew its support of the Society. Its failure was likely due to its narrow and paternalistic land policies that unfortunately excluded a great deal of potentially capable settlers. This was combined with the failure to obtain any significant leadership among the settlers which resulted in corruption and discredited its reputation, but not before aiding thousands of other refugees.
John and Jane Walls
John Freeman Walls worked at the Walls’s plantation on Troublesome Creek, in Rockingham County, North Carolina. It was here that he became good friends with Daniel Walls, the slave owner’s son and his wife Jane King Walls. When Daniel was on his deathbed he freed John and placed Jane and their children under the care of John. In 1845 John and Jane left a life of slavery and oppression behind them and fled towards Detroit, Michigan in search of a new life. The Walls family crossed Lake Erie in a steam boat “the Pearl” and arrived in Amherstburg in 1846. The two were strongly against slavery and as such became abolishionists who fought against the institution of slavery and its immoral roots. Their inter-racial relationship (John being black and Jane being white) caused controversy even after they arrived in Canada, and they often received stares, although according to John, “most” of the refugees were neither black nor white but “various shades of black.” Upon their arrival, the two toured various settlements in the region, themselves looking for a place to settle. During their journey they passed through the Puce settlement, where the Refugee Home Society had recently purchased land to sell back to refugee slaves, and the two decided to purchase a 12-acre (49,000 m2) property from the Society and settle at 859 East Puce Road in Puce (now known as Emeryville). Over the next few years, a log cabin was erected, and Walls would have six children and would acquire more than 200 acres (0.81 km2) of land. John and Jane were strong Christians and held the initial services of the RHS in their own home. Jane was a Sunday School Teacher while John was a carpenter and the Deacon of the First Baptist Church and loaned the congregation the funds to purchase the necessary land for the construction of a log cabin church. The couple had many Quaker friends who assisted in smuggling fugitives by dressing them up in women's costumes. One of the most well known was Levi Coffin, a Quaker from Cincinnati who became known as the President of The Underground Railroad for his valiant crusade against slavery. John had a favourite passage in the Bible, Proverbs III, “My son forget not my laws, but let thine heart keep my commandments for length of day and long life shall they bring thee”. The Walls sent word of their new haven to a Quaker abolitionist couple in Indiana who had married them on their journey into Canada,. and the site evolved into a terminal station for the Underground Railroad where they welcomed many fugitives of slavery and helped them to begin a free life in Canada. Jane revisited to the south on two separate occasions and returned with numerous refugees of slavery.
The Modern Day Site
The site was first recognized by the government for its historical significance after one of Walls’ descendants, their great-great grandson Dr. Bryan E. Walls, wrote a historical novel in 1976 called "The Road that Led to Somewhere", a novel which chronicled the Walls’ original journey to the settlement and their involvement in the Underground Railroad. The novel created interest in the Walls’ story, and in 1985, the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum was opened. The current site now operates as a history museum. It contains Walls’ original log cabin, the Walls’ family cemetery, as well as the Historic Walkway, an overgrown brush trail that recreates the natural setting fleeing slaves would have had to contend with. The site also commemorates the modern Civil Rights Movement with a Peace Chapel created in honour of Rosa Parks, inside of which hangs a cross made from bricks from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Although a historical plaque exists on site, the site is still run by the family and does not receive any government support. The site is administered as a non-profit organization by the Proverbs Heritage Organization, and shares a close relationship with the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. For his contribution to Black History, Bryan Walls has received the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.
- 9. Walls, Winston (1991). “A Unit of Study on the Road That Lead to Somewhere And The Underground Railroad.”
- Drew, Benjamin (1856), A North-Side View of Slavery, Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, pp. v.
- Hill, Daniel G. (1981), The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, Agincourt: The Book Society of Canada Limited, p. 74.
- 10. Bramble, Linda (1988). “Black Fugitive Slaves In Early Canada”, Vanwell History Project Series.
- 11. Deramus, Betty (2005). “Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From The Underground Railroad”, Atria Books.
- 12. Landale, Laryssa (2003). “If These Walls Could Talk”. Walkerville Times, 31.
- Walls, Bryan E. (1980), The Road That Led to Somewhere, Windsor: Olive Publishing Company, p. 111.
- Gibson, Susan (Winter 2005), "Up From Slavery: Bryan Walls Raises a Monument to the Underground Railroad", University of Toronto Magazine.
- 13. Switala, William J. (2001). “Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania”.
- Walls, Bryan E. (1980), The Road That Led to Somewhere, Windsor: Olive Publishing Company, p. 136.
- The Historic Walkway - John Freeman Walls Historic Site
- Russel, Hillary (1997), "Underground Railroad Parks: A Shared History", Cultural Resource Management, 20 (2), p. 18.