"North is freedom—
Each book a drum;
Each life a poem."
— George Elliot Clarke,
Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada
The story of North is Freedom
This evocative photographic essay celebrates 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; others found their way to Canada with the help of a clandestine network of "conductors" and "stations" called the "Underground Railroad." Approximately 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, Canadian photographer Yuri Dojc explores the northern end of the "Underground Railroad," presenting 24 images of descendants. Black and white, young and old, these are the grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren of once-enslaved African Americans who have contributed to the growth of this great nation. These Canadians are attuned to their histories and proud of their ancestors' courage.
Their stories are both personal and 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.
Author Dr Bryan Walls 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 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. "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, and we remain here."
What led Dojc to embrace this story, ostensibly so different from and yet, in many ways, so similar to his own? Perhaps it was his parents' tale of survival during WWII, or his own history as a refugee who fled the Soviet invasion of his birthplace, Czechoslovakia, in 1968? Or perhaps it was the love of his new home, the True North strong and free? The connections are evident in North is Freedom, as Dojc applies a universalist perspective to this subject. As with all great works of art, the resonance of the images lies in their transcendence of time and place.