**Article originally published in the October 2017 edition of Outlook newsletter.

 

It is the opinion of author Steven Duff that Dr. Alexander Milton Ross was a genuine super hero. Ross, born in Belleville in 1832, was a physician, author, abolitionist, naturalist and reformer, and, says Duff, “a man who walked the walk.” He expounded on these views in his presentation at the Historical Society’s public event in September. 

Duff, a retired school music teacher, first heard of Ross when his students were assigned a school project on the Underground Railroad, a concept developed by the Quakers that operated during the time of slavery in the southern United States. Duff was amazed by what he learned about the man and decided that he would do some serious research himself. Eight years later it culminated with the publication of his novel Hunter of Dreams. 

Among his many accomplishments, Ross was some- thing of an authority on birds. Using this knowledge to gain introduction to southern US plantation society, he got permission from plantation owners to tour their properties, ostensibly for his ornithological pursuits. It was the perfect cover for his true purpose, which was to acquaint the slaves who accompanied him in his walks with information about how to escape to the north. 

Strange as it may seem to our ears today, Ross found that not all slaves wanted to leave the only place they knew as home. They were the ones who lived on “good” plantations where they felt they were fairly treated compared to those on plantations where failure to complete the quota of work demanded by the owner would lead to serious punishments like whipping. The latter were more than ready to make a run for it, and even in the south where there was a growing repugnancy to slave ownership, there were safe houses they could depend on for help providing they knew the signs to look for such as a quilt hanging in a window. 

While not involved directly in the escapes himself, Alexander Milton Ross organized hundreds of escapes to the north. There were, for example, railway boxcars heading north marked hardware or dry goods or pet stock, code names for the cars carrying men, women or children. But politics were at play in the US. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Escaped slaves in the northern states were free, but at the same time they were also considered stolen property. Southern slave owners posted rewards for their return, and there were those in the north who were ready to turn a slave over to his or her “owner” for profit. One of the most dramatic scenes in literature of this scenario occurs in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Fugitive Slave Act was one of the reasons that many escaped slaves kept on going until they had crossed into Canada. 

By 1793, slavery in Canada had been phased out, but while escaped slaves had rights as Canadian citizens, it did not mean they escaped racism on Canadian soil. Racism existed here, too, and made life difficult for many. The Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario, includes the home of escaped slave Josiah Henson. It was his autobiography that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s title character in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin