It is estimated that during the first half of the 19th century upwards of 100,000 slaves escaped slavery along the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a secret network shepherding African-Americans north, away from formal chattel slavery. Professor Melvin Sylvester of the CW Post Campus of Long Island University asserts that by 1800 there were 700,000 slaves in America. In South Carolina, alone, there were more Africans then Europeans and in Maryland and Virginia the population demographic was split 50/50. Since there is little or no existing evidence of runaways, we are left with only legends, tales, and oral histories. There is no way to know if the estimate of 100,000 runaways is low, high, or close to accurate. The amount of hysteria caused by stories of the clandestine network igniting the suspicions and hope of slave society might lead one to think that maybe this number is a low estimate. There is no way to know. The hysteria could have simply been a young nation desperately trying to protect the backbone of its economy and burgeoning prosperity. Regardless we are left with only the accounts of decedents.
This week StoryCorps Griot set up at one of our many New York City community partners, the Harlem YMCA. At the Harlem Y we were visited by Nicole Gallant and her mother Elizabeth Anne Harrison. Mrs. Harrison came in to talk about her family’s escape to Canada and the life and experience of subsequent descendents in Southern Ontario, where they settled. Her ancestors escaped slavery on a Southern plantation. Over a period of months and months they traveled to Boston, Massachussetts. Several years later they made their way to Ohio and eventually over the border to Canada. In all the tales and accounts of slavery and the Underground Railroad, there is not enough attention paid to the people who succeeded in getting to Canada, establishing businesses, communities and towns just over the border. Much of the information that exists about freed slave communities in Canada comes from stories like the one Mrs. Harrison came in to share.
Thank you Mrs Gallant and Mrs. Harrison. Your family’s story is an important part of American history. When you share stories with your family you make an invaluable oral record of our elders and ancestors. Recording your story transforms it into an oral history. When you add it to collections of other oral history recordings like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the story of your family’s experiences becomes an indelible record of American culture.
Nicole Gallant (L) and her mother Elizabeth Anne Harrison (R)
Mrs Harrison still lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Mississauga is outside Toronto in Southern Ontario.
Concentrations of Underground Railroad refugee settlers in Southern Ontario circa 1850. According to Mrs. Harrison many of these communities exist in some form, today.
Underground Railroad Routes
map courtesy National Geographic