Imagining a world where everyone isn’t guaranteed an opportunity to read and write is strange to us. While studying history, we face this reality in sources but don’t always fully comprehend what it meant. What did it mean if you lived during the Underground Railroad Era and didn’t have a formal education? In the records we have from Freedom Seekers they speak highly of the value of education.
In Benjamin Drew’s interviews for his book, The Underground Railroad, he records a statement by Martha Bentley explaining how many Freedom Seekers looked at education. She says, “I have five smart children, and send all to school but the two youngest, I mean they shall have a good education; what little knowledge I have, has just made me hungry for more.”[i]
The hunger for education is present in other Freedom Seekers’ words as well. In the 1863 Freedman’s Inquiry Commission interview with Mrs. Wilkinson, she expressed regret that she didn’t learn to read and write when given the opportunity while she was living in the United States.
“My master’s children would have taught me to read and write but I wouldn’t let them. Now I feel very sorry that I didn’t learn to read and write.”[ii]
Freedom Seekers who reached Canada spoke about opportunities to learn that were available to them in the community. Their testimonies prove that given a different reality, many would have pursued formal education for themselves. However, their new life in Canada required Freedom Seekers to work. The work available to someone with a limited education often meant that it was low paying work that required long hours to make ends meet. That meant that there was little time for learning.
“After I came out here, Mr. Wilson and his wife used to keep school at nights, but we were so poor that we had to quit going to school and dig right into work.”[iii]
The inability to pursue education for themselves, meant education was prioritized for the children of Freedom Seekers. Giving their children opportunities for advancement was cited by many as why they worked so hard. The community felt that if they were able to educate their children, their children could have all the things that had been denied to them. George Ross in his Freedman’s Inquiry Commission testimony says:
“I never was blessed with the privileges of education myself, though my children read and write very well.”[iv]
Many Freedom Seekers shared the conviction that education was the only thing standing between their children and success.
“The coloured people here are capable of doing anything that they have a chance to do. All we want is good schools for the children and capital enough to give them good trades… My boy Neil be educated as well as anybody, if it costs every last cent I ever made.” Mrs Brown.
Mrs. Brown details the lengths she is willing to go to ensure her grandson was educated properly. She valued education for him over everything.
The Freedom Seeker testimonies spoke to the prejudices they faced in Canada. The knowledge of these prejudices leads to the question, did prejudice infiltrate the school system that the children of Freedom Seekers attended? The records indicate that prejudice was present in the common schools in Canada West. The Common School act of 1850 provided legislation for establishment of separate schools for Black and White pupils.[v] With this legislation, parents of students faced a system that was designed to give their children an inferior education. In an article by J.W. Logan’s published in the May 26,1854 edition of the Provincial Freedman, he argued that the schools for Black children were inferior and calls for a boycott against segregation.
“Denied equal rights by the Government, they scorn the favour which prescribes their equality and dignity. They have braved too much for freedom to consent to the degradation which such a boon implies.”[vii]
While some families did boycott the school in protest of segregation, enrollment numbers indicate that many Freedom Seekers felt that education was too important to pass up. The Freedman’s Inquiry Commission testimony of James Brown, who oversaw teaching at the Common school for Black pupils, provides a figure of 110 students attending in the winter and 40 in the summer. These figures make sense as many Freedom Seekers made a living on farms and would have needed children’s help during the summer. The winter numbers, however, of 120-130 registered and 110 on average attending, speaks to the importance of formal education.
The legal case of Hutchinson vs. St Catharines demonstrates that while the community valued education too much to pass up, they were still opposed to segregated schooling. The case was heard in 1871 by Justice Joseph Curran Morrison and determined that the opening of separate schools in 1846 had been “highly irregular,” as the Common School Act wouldn’t give them the authority to do so for another four years. Ultimately though he ruled that the law currently gave the schoolboard the legal means to operate separate schools.[vi]
The outcome of the case was unsurprising given the specifics of the Common School Act of 1850. Did the school for the Black children receive the same quality of education as the school for White children? James Brown’s interview suggests that the Black students school he was charged with received inferior equipment. One problem that the school had in obtaining supplies was a lack of funding. Brown details the difficulty in acquiring textbooks for the children. He states:
“The great difficulty I have to contend against is the want of books. The government does not give us books. It expects the children to find them. I went to the trustees four or five years ago and got a number of books. If it had not been for those books, I don’t know what I would have done. It was actually teaching by word of mouth.”[viii]
Lack of equipment wasn’t the only difficulty faced by children attending the public school for Black children. The school did not have anyone from the community involved in its operation. Elder Perry explains in his 1863 interview for the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission that, “no colored man has had charge of the colored school in this town for the last 10 to 12 years.[ix]” The testimony of Elder Perry confirms that Brown made the public school a difficult place to get the education that Freedom Seekers sought for their children saying:
“Mr. James Brown has been teaching there for the last six years and is a most shameful inebriate. The colored people have demonstrated against it, until finally they have wrought the Board up to a conviction of the propriety of dismissing him.”[x]
After Brown ceased working for the school the job was posted in the newspaper and applicants were advised to submit their applications to C.P. Camp. Camp was also the town clerk and treasurer during this period and had been interviewed on his views on St. Catharines Freedom Seekers by Howe in 1863. The responses he gives in his interview reveal his own prejudices against the Black community. Camp’s involvement in the selection of teacher for the Black community’s school would likely have been influenced by his biases and prevented the children from getting the best education they could get.
During this period, Elder Perry opened a private school for the Black community because of the state of the public school. Perry explains that he opened the school as an alternative to the public school and has almost forty students enrolled who pay a monthly fee of fifty cents. He had his students pay in weekly installments because they came for poorer families.[xi] These families clearly valued education to the point where they were doing what ever it took to get their children a good education.
While earning an education was difficult for Freedom Seekers, they valued it highly. They worked hard to create a new life here in Canada and their dream was that their children would have the opportunities they were denied in their former lives. When the system presented barriers to impede their children’s education the community members provided private education to improve the quality of education. The belief in education being the means of equality was what drove many Freedom Seekers in the pursuit of a better future for their children.
This post was part four of our BHM series. Catch all four parts of this series from Black History Month 2022 using the tag or category ‘Black History’.
Abbey Stansfield is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.
[i] Drew, Benjamin. A North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee: Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada. United Kingdom: J.P. Jewett, 1856 (145).
[ii] Transcripts of American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission Testimonies, 1863. Interview with Mrs. Joseph Wilkinson.
[iv] Transcripts of American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission Testimonies, 1863. Interview with George Ross.
[v] Hill, Daniel G. The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Toronto, ON: Stoddard Publishing Co. Limited, 1995 (156).
[vi] Hill, Daniel G. The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Toronto, ON: Stoddard Publishing Co. Limited, 1995 (159)
[vii] Hill, Daniel G. The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Toronto, ON: Stoddard Publishing Co. Limited, 1995 (157)
[viii] Transcripts of American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission Testimonies, 1863. Interview with John Brown
[ix] Transcripts of American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission Testimonies, 1863. Interview with Elder Perry