Transcript for The North Was Our Canaan: Exploring Sandwich Town's Underground Railroad History

A film by Anushray Singh (2020)

Irene Moore Davis, President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society: The Detroit River is a key piece of the Underground Railroad story in North America. It is known to have been one of the most important points at which people escaping from slavery could cross into Canada. The geography was part of the reason for that. There are several spots along the Detroit River where it's quite narrow and it's very easy for people to cross, relative to other places such as the Niagara River or certainly the Great Lakes system.  And the Detroit River had around it, on both sides of the river, really important communities that were committed to ending slavery.

Teajai Travis, Executive Director of Bloomfield House: The Detroit River literally carried people into freedom. You know, sometimes people describe it as the last stop of the Underground Railroad: Sandwich Town.

Davis: It became almost legendary in the Underground Railroad system of codes and information that was passed from individual to individual to help them get to safety.

So Detroit was known as "midnight." Canada, on the other side of the Detroit River, was known as "Canaan." And there were individuals in the American South who had heard of the Detroit River who knew that it was the most important place that they could go to if they wanted to get to safety and to freedom. There were individuals who crossed into Sandwich specifically who talked about the fact that they had been told that the river was a thousand miles wide, that it was full of sea monsters that there were all of these reasons why they should not try to get to the Detroit River specifically. So that really speaks to you how legendary it had become, how mythological it had become.

Travis: We're talking about a place that represented freedom for many people post-1833.

If you are leaving those southern states in the United States of America, the furthest north you're gonna go is Canada. And, you know, in Canada there's what may be considered to be this gift of freedom, which blows my mind today to think that our ancestors looked at freedom as a gift, this thing to be achieved.

Kimberly Simmons, Executive Director of the Detroit River Project: But it was such an opportunity for those because once they got to it, it was easily crossed. When you got to our River, you not only could smell freedom, you could see it.

In 1826, my ancestor was born in St. Louis, after the family had moved to St. Louis by way of Ohio. However, they couldn't stay in Ohio at that place in Columbus because they had enslaved people. So, rather than stay and release their slaves, they moved on to territory that was new and just freshly settled, along the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis, Missouri. They ended up in St. Louis because of the fact that they enslaved persons.

It was probably a journey that I look back now and say would I, could I have done that?

Fear, and the thought of being, of attaining something that you've only whispered about or has only been talked about. Probably, maybe, would drive me.

But every day I get up and honour the ancestors for doing that.

Caroline was born in St. Louis as the granddaughter of her owner. In 1843 when she escaped, she was owned by a gentleman by the name of Charles Hall who would have been her paternal uncle by marriage.  In a year, she met a man, a little bit older. His name was Alan Watkins. There's a little bit of an age difference: Caroline was 16 going on 17 at the time, he was 28 with three kids.

Lana Talbot, historian, Sandwich First Baptist Church: Sandwich is such a quaint place. It tells a story, it tells a story that's never been written.

Travis: Despite the difficulties and the roadblocks that make activism a necessity, I know that I'm carrying the ancestors with me. The elders are with me, and that's something that's really special and that's something that we can't, we don't find in every community. I've been in different spaces, I've lived in different spaces and spent time with many, many people, and there's something about Sandwich Town that's just unlike any other place I've ever been to.  There's people who have never lived in Sandwich Town that claim Sandwich Town as their home.

Talbot: Sandwich First Baptist started as a committee, a meeting and apparently, as records have found out you can trace a meeting of the settlers that were in this area back to the late 1820s and early 1830s

Travis: We're talking about people who were participating in the revolutionary action of just existing.

Talbot: The founding of this church, there was a minister by the name of Binga and what he did, he went from—they called him "the travelling preacher"—and what he did, he went from city to city into Michigan, he started a church there, he started a church in Amherstburg, and he helped to start this church here.  And it was, at one point, a very small log cabin where people were able to come and worship freely and these were free Blacks that lived in Canada.

Travis: When I think about the Sandwich First Baptist Church, I'm thinking about formerly enslaved people who came together to worship and build community. There's bounty hunters looking for you.... The chances that you could be captured and sent back to what you just ran away from are very high. But the strength, the integrity, the knowing that you're doing this for generations coming down the road. We're gonna build a church.  I think about stories that I heard about the community coming together to build the bricks, to build the church.

Talbot: It was 1844 that the three deacons went to Queen Victoria. It was a three month travel by water. In 1847, they started to build this church.

Davis: It is the only original Underground Railroad-era church building built by the Underground Railroad travellers themselves in this entire city. There are still many congregations of historic African-Canadian churches in this city, but this is the only original building that's still standing and it's really the only way that we can visually tell the story of how important the church was to people in the Underground Railroad era.

The very bricks that are part of this building were created with the hands of Underground Railroad travellers.

Off camera: "Please say your name."

Charlotte Watkins, Sandwich resident and Watkins descendant: Charlotte Watkins. I live on Watkins street. And my name is Charlotte Watkins.

This church means a lot to me. I grew up in this church.

Talbot: We always think of this church as an oasis where people come, they get filled, and they're able to leave whole.

Travis: That's powerful, and that's this place right here. That's the Sandwich First Baptist Church. That's the sort of strength and energy that just radiates from this place and everybody that comes through it. Nobody that walks through these doors is the same when they leave these doors. You close your eyes and you can hear the ancestors singing in the wind.

Watkins: To my left, there was a graveyard, and as a very young child, I remember the huge, huge wrought iron fence around the graveyard, and it had all these crooked, knock-em-down stones.

Slaves were buried there, ministers were buried there, old people were buried there.

Talbot: Whenever the bounty hunters were located or wherever they were seen—because they could cross the border freely— whenever they were felt that they were around or they were observed to be around, people would start ringing a bell.

Watkins: This was a meeting place. This was the meeting place.

Davis: This was a place where people who were being pursued by slave catchers and bounty hunters, their former owners, could actually come and hide.

Talbot: Sometimes they would tie something around a post so that people knew that bounty hunters were close at hand and that they were coming in and they were looking for certain runaways. Now, when they got here and as soon as the pastor heard of the ringing of the bells, they locked the doors immediately, and they went down under.  When they look into that space, they see the earth, which is approximately about two feet. And that's how much space they had to hide.

Simmons: As a daughter of Sandwich as a descended daughter of Sandwich, to read the names that are tied not only to the African-Canadian experience but to the African-American experience. And the story, that is that of American slavery, is breathtaking.

Talbot: This is the land of freedom. This is the land of choice.

Travis: Suppose Sandwich was a hot spot, and that we were so close to that river, so close to those borders, that if you're going to organize, you're likely going to organize here because it's just part of the path.

Davis: We had this amazing group of individuals who came here seeking freedom from slavery, making these incredible journeys. When we look at the census records, we can see that they came from Alabama, Missouri, and Mississippi, and Louisiana, and North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and all of these places.

But we also had these luminaries of the anti-slavery movement who made this their home as well.  People like Henry Bibb and Mary Miles Bibb.

Talbot: I think there should be a monument here for Henry Bibb.  I think he, at I think, it was at 39 someone said he had died. That's so young, so young to have done so many feats that he had done.

Davis: When Henry and Mary Bibb came to Sandwich in 1851, they were really the first people to open an actual school that children of African descent could attend.

Simmons: He was the editor of a paper, he ran a school, he and his wife.  He wrote a book detailing the fact that we can talk about that now. A paper, he was involved with the abolitionist activity here. And I don't know if it's bravery that drives you or family that drives you, but Henry Bibb successfully escaped from the state of Kentucky, once. He got to Detroit, set up shop, and his work, his abolitionist work, his paper, and then decided, literally decided, to go back to the South and find his wife, whom he had left because he had to. So, he literally deemed it necessary, he needed, he was already free, had made it -- and he went back to get his own.

Unfortunately, that did not work, and lived, historically speaking, such a short life. He packed all of that into this small little lifespan, this tiny lifespan. That big life into a little lifespan.

Travis: I reflect on Mary Bibb, and her story also inspires me to keep on digging. We think about this person who was born to free Quaker parents in Rhode Island that maybe didn't have to be a revolutionary. [She was] well-educated, could have taught in suburb and lived on a farm, and that would have been fine, but made the decision to do more with it, and not just teach, but to really build community.

We're talking about entrepreneurship and artistry. Would "Voice of the Fugitive" even be a thing without Mary Bibb? What they were writing about...amazing! The language that was being used, it was so coded and so poetic. What was happening here in Sandwich Town was so important, and that's just a drop in the bucket.

I like to think back through those reflections of what she was seeing when she was a young person in Kingsville, a young person in Puce, and the folks that they were organizing with.

When I think about all of...I mean all of these women are important, right? There's not picking one and not picking the other, and there's so much that have been written about some and not about anything else.

But collectively, I like to think about the fundraisers that were organized to sustain a Sandwich First Baptist Church or to build a Sandwich First Baptist Church, and all the things that were going on behind the scenes that don't get a lot of credit.

When we think about early Emancipation that was hosted right here in Sandwich Town, who was making sure, who was organizing that really? Who was really organizing that? Who was making sure that that was something that happened because there's a lot of people, a lot of men who are gonna wave a flag and take a lot of credit, and unfortunately, society is structured in such a way that they will receive that credit but...none of this would have been possible without those sisters.

Davis: Confronting numerous hurdles to social acceptance, prosperity, and true freedom beyond freedom from slavery, the black residents of Sandwich grew their community into a place of strength, social companionship, and unity.

Theirs is an amazing story well worth discovering.

End of transcript.