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Remembering Chloe Cooley and the railroad to freedom

Remembering Chloe Cooley and the railroad to freedom

People in the United States are well aware of their nation’s history of enslaving people from Africa. But in Canada, where I live, the story of our complicity in this crime against humanity is less often told.

In the 1700s, continuing years after the American Revolution, the remaining British colonies in what is now Canada had slavery. Initially, British and French colonists had mostly enslaved First Nations people, with African slaves numbering in the hundreds. But when the war with the United States ended, a large migration of white Americans who were loyal to the British crown changed the demographics of Canada forever. They not only anglicized the formerly French areas of today’s southern Ontario; they brought about 2000 enslaved African people with them. And Britain ruled in 1790 that prospective immigrants would be able to keep their enslaved servants as “property.”

This is the context for the story of Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman in Queenston, Upper Canada, who was violently forced into a boat towards the United States in 1793 to be literally sold down the river.

Here is her story, as told by fellow Black women:

Its title is a play on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a PBS documentary that took the name from a famous Jimmy Cliff song. Unlike the six-part, six-hour American documentary, the Canadian version is an easy 3/12 minute watch, shot on an iPhone, and featuring historian Wilma Morrison, and arts facilitator Kyla Farmer. But don’t let this film’s modesty fool you: the historical lesson here is just as important.

Chloe Cooley’s story of suffering was one of many, at the time, but hers set in motion big changes for the nascent Canada.

From Black History Canada:

She resisted fiercely; Peter Martin, a free Black man, noticed her screams and struggles and brought a witness, William Grisley, to report the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe supported the abolition of enslavement even before he came to Upper Canada, and used the Chloe Cooley incident as a catalyst to introduce the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. The motion was opposed in the House of Assembly—some of its members were slave owners. But the government brokered a compromise and on July 9 the Upper Canada legislature passed “an Act to prevent the further introduction of slaves, and to limit the term of contract for servitude” in the province.

Although no enslaved persons in the province were freed outright, the act prohibited the importation of enslaved people into Upper Canada and allowed the gradual abolition of enslavement. It was the first legislation in the British Empire limiting enslavement and set the stage for the beginnings of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad, as most Canadians should know, was a network of safe houses and allies who would help smuggle African-Americans who had escaped their captors into Canada and other safer areas.

White Canadians can be pretty smug about the Underground Railroad, without realizing that it took the sacrifice and suffering of people like Chloe Cooley to plant the seeds of freedom in our country. And, more importantly, we need to realize that we still have a long way to go in fighting against injustice within our own borders.

Thanks to Ottawa poet and performer Jamaal Rogers for sharing this.


I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more