An Often-Overlooked Part of
Our Local History Comes Alive
Story by Karen Tinsley
Photography Courtesy Amherstburg Freedom Museum
Created in the early 19th century by a group of Pennsylvania abolitionists (people committed to abolishing slavery), the Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad. It had many conductors, but it did not run on railway tracks and it wasn’t a train. It was a complex, clandestine network of people and safe houses that helped enslaved persons on southern United States plantations reach freedom in northern states.
Then in 1850 a law was passed that made it easier for enslavers to claim their “property” after escaping; the Underground Railroad had to shift gears and start moving people to Canada.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Freedom Seekers entered Canada during the last decades of enslavement in the United States. Newcomers migrated to various parts of Amherstburg, Windsor, Buxton, Chatham, London, Niagara Falls, Owen Sound, Hamilton, Brantford, Oakville and Toronto. They also fled to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec.
After crossing the Detroit River to Amherstburg (one of the river’s narrowest crossing points), these individuals were—perhaps for the first time—recognized and respected as human beings.
The Underground Railroad is an important part of Essex County history; The Amherstburg Freedom Museum offers visitors an authentic reflection of what life was like during these times.
Nestled on a quiet downtown residential street, the Museum shines the spotlight on personal narratives of the people who built the Underground Railroad and the pivotal role Amherstburg played in Black history.
Formerly known as the North American Black Historical Museum, this community-based non-profit was founded in 1975 by Betty and Melvin “Mac” Simpson. In 2015, it was renamed The Amherstburg Freedom Museum to emphasize its connection to Freedom Seekers.
Included in the Museum complex are the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church (a treasured National Historic Site and a Canadian Terminus on the Underground Railroad) and the Taylor Log Cabin (home of formerly enslaved George Taylor and his family).
Built in 1848 by hand, many felt their first true taste of freedom within the walls of Nazrey Church.
Named after Bishop Willis Nazrey (an Underground Railroad hero who started the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada to serve Freedom Seekers), the evocative stone church also functioned as an interim shelter, school and community centre.
The Taylor Log Cabin is fully furnished with genuine heirlooms, including a wooden birthing chair, spinning wheel and iron plough. George Taylor (who escaped slavery in Kentucky) lived in the cabin with his family around 1880.
The Permanent Gallery houses artifacts depicting the journey to freedom and the legacy of those who built their lives in this region.
The Gift Shop is stocked with reasonably priced books, themed clothing, vibrant note cards and other quality mementos.
Museum cultural events include Ribs & Ragtime, Emancipation Celebrations, Black History Month programming and Christmas at the Museum.
Presentations on African Canadian history and the Underground Railroad are offered to groups, schools, clubs, societies, retirement homes and other non-profit community organizations.
The Freedom Achievers Mentorship Program recruits mentors from fields including First Responders, S.T.E.M., the Arts, Education, Law, Medicine, Business and Finance who provide active engagement and insight into career options for mentees; the “Achieving Freedom in the 21st Century” speaker series welcomes diverse high-profile community builders to discuss the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve created positive change.
Staff-conducted and self-conducted research and genealogy are offered at the Museum. Its website and social media channels are chock full of resources and information on local history.
Black History displays created by the Museum are exhibited in libraries, schools, universities and hospitals, such as the Black History Month display at the Ouellette and MET Campus hospitals showcasing Black doctors, nurses and health professionals.
Visitors are encouraged to book tours in advance.
For more information all 519-736-5433 or visit amherstburgfreedom.org.