North to Freedom

Celebrating Sandwich Town’s role in the Underground Railroad

Map of East and West Sandwich Townships from the Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Essex and Kent, 1880-1881.

Credit: Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive, Leddy Library, University of Windsor

In the early to mid-1800s, the Underground Railroad enabled many African-Americans’ journeys from slavery to freedom. It was a large-scale, transnational movement for social justice and human rights involving people of all ethnicities, religions and classes on both sides of the Canada–US border. Yet historian Irene Moore Davis, president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, has found that many Canadians know little about their country’s role in it. She wants to change that with a new documentary that explores the historical landmarks of Sandwich Town, Ontario—a critical entry point into Canada—through the voices of the Black community.

A site of hidden history

Sandwich Town, now a neighbourhood in Windsor, sits at one of the narrowest points of the Detroit River, making it an ideal spot for Underground Railroad travellers to cross over from Detroit into Canada. (In the secret system of codes used by freedom seekers and abolitionists, Detroit was called “Midnight” and Canada was “Dawn,” or “Canaan” in reference to the biblical Promised Land.) The travellers were embraced by the people of the town—and, in 1851, some helped build Sandwich First Baptist Church, the city’s only remaining church built by formerly enslaved people.

Henry Bibb (1815-1854) was an abolitionist and author of Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself published in 1849. He escaped to Sandwich Town, where he established the first Black newspaper in Canada, The Voice of the Fugitive, in 1851.

Photo: Copper engraving of Henry Bibb by Patrick Reason. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

“My ancestors helped build its very bricks,” says Davis. “But it’s so much more than just a building. It served as an intake centre for new arrivals, a meeting spot for anti-slavery activists, and even a safe haven where people could hide from bounty hunters. It’s a vital part of this community and this story.”

The idea to produce a film about the town’s role in the Underground Railroad came after University of Windsor librarian Heidi Jacobs heard Davis speaking at a local event. She was captivated by Davis’ stories and proposed a documentary that would allow this history to be shared more broadly.

Directed by Anushray Singh, an MFA graduate in film and media arts from the University of Windsor, The North Was Our Canaan focuses on local people with deep historical knowledge of the area and connections to the Underground Railroad story: Kimberly Simmons, executive director of the United-States-based Detroit River Project; Lana Talbot, the church’s historian; Teajai Travis, an Afro-Indigenous historical archivist; Charlotte Watkins, who still lives on the original homestead her family settled in the 1840s; and Davis herself.

“We filmed the interviews inside Sandwich First Baptist Church, and I don’t think it could have been any other way,” says Davis. “Telling our stories there and feeling the connection to the history of the place was a profoundly moving experience.”

Filling gaps in Canada’s history

The documentary was funded by a SSHRC Explore grant to the University of Windsor. It premiered online in November 2020 during the university’s Humanities Week.

Davis says the reception has been outstanding. Her team has heard from other historical societies, educators looking to incorporate the film into their classes, as well as Windsor residents who had no idea about this local history. And members of Windsor’s city council are hoping the film will help them guide conversations about how to mark the contributions of those too often left out of official commemorations. In this way, the film is also contributing to the larger dialogue around who and what is worthy of memorializing—and what those decisions say about society.

“We’re only just starting to scratch the surface of really telling the complete story of Canada, including the contributions of Black people and communities,” says Davis. “I hope this film inspires people to seek out and unearth the forgotten stories about the places where they live.”

Visit the film’s website to read more about Sandwich Town and to watch The North Was Our Canaan, an official selection of the 2020 Montréal Independent Film Festival.