North is freedom- Uptown, down-home:Each book a drum;Each life a poem.*
George Elliott Clarke, Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada
This extraordinary photographic essay features the descendants of freedom-seekers who escaped slavery in the United States in the years before the American Civil War. Some came entirely alone and unaided, and others found their way to Canada with the help of a clandestine network of "conductors," and "stations" called the "Underground Railroad." It’s estimated some 30,000 men, women and children fled north to freedom, settling from the Canadian Maritimes as far west as the Manitoba border. Most came to what is now Ontario, to places such as Windsor, Chatham, Buxton, the Niagara Peninsula, Owen Sound, and larger cities like Hamilton and Toronto.
Some 150 years later, Yuri Dojc, an internationally recognized photographer based in Toronto, explored the Canadian termini of the “Underground Railroad”, capturing poignant images of 24 descendants. Young and old, Black and white, these farmers and teachers, students and retired people are the great great grandchildren of once-enslaved African Americans whose contributions to the growth and development of this great nation are myriad. These Canadians are mindful of their histories and justly proud of theirancestors' courage.
Their stories are personal as well as historical. “This project shows we are all one family… I am as much Black as I am white. I am of African slaves as I am of Irish immigrants. I am multiracial and we are all cousins”, says Carl Stevenson, a fifth generation descendant of John H. Meads of Baltimore, who is pictured along with his cousin, Stephen Harris.
Dr. Bryan Walls, an author who has written about his own ancestry, believes “the Underground Railroad was the first Great Freedom Movement in the Americas." To Dr. Walls, it represents the first time that people of goodwill, of all ethnicities and faiths worked together in harmony in the common cause of freedom and justice.
Like many others photographed for this series, descendant Susan Johnson Washington is delighted to have the opportunity to share her story. “We have proven beyond a doubt our rightful place in Canada’s history. To be included in this project is to finally pay homage to each of our ancestors. They may have had to follow the “North Star”, but we can say to the world, we are here, always have been here, always and in all ways, we remain here. “
These photographs demonstrate the power of art to convey a powerful narrative that continues to touch present and future generations. A decade ago,Dojc’s compulsion to capture the
people and places that remained resulted in Last Folio, a photographic series, documentary filnd book that is a monument to a vibrant culture that was lost in the Holocaust. Perhaps it was his own history as a refugee who fled the Soviet invasion of his birthplace in 1968. Or possibly it was the love of his new home, the true north strong and free, or his own parent’s tale of survival during WWII that led Dojc to embrace another peoples’ story, ostensibly so different from and yet, in many ways, so similar to his own. The connection is evident as Dojc applies a universalist perspective to this subject and, as with all great works of art, the resonance of the image lies in its transcendence of time and space.
North is Freedom opens September 22, 2016 at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC, concurrently with the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The show will be in Washington until the New Year, when it travels back to Canada.
These lines are from George Elliott Clarke, "North Is Freedom," Red, Gaspereau Press (2011)