Three years ago, historian Lana Talbot talked about how visitors of the Sandwich First Baptist Church have seen and heard things in and around the church that cannot be explained by church authorities. Indeed, the historic Sandwich First Baptist Church does not only stand as one of the Black border-town churches in Windsor, Ontario, but it stands also an important symbol of the anti-slavery struggle.
Built on land donated by the Crown in 1851, the church was a significant stop along the Underground Railroad, receiving, sheltering, and helping large groups of Black settlers, mainly former enslaved people, who were arriving in Nova Scotia, Canada.
More often than not, when Canadians discuss slavery, they like to speak at length about the role they played in the mid-1800s providing a safe haven for enslaved people fleeing plantations in the southern U.S. via the Underground Railroad. And though slavery happened in Canada too, the story of the Underground Railroad is a significant moment in Canadian history, and the role of the historic Sandwich First Baptist Church next to the American border should not be forgotten.
After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, slave owners got the right to return runaway enslaved men and women to the south. Thus, the only option for slaves was to flee to Canada largely through the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a large movement in North America consisting of several individuals who worked together to aid slaves in their escape from their captors.
The freedom network began in the 1830s; there were homes and businesses which became known as “stations” along the route toward the north. These homes provided temporary shelter for fugitive slaves before they continued the rest of their journey. The Underground Railroad extended to Canada in 1834 after the latter had outlawed slavery. By the end of 1850, the network had helped 10,000 slaves escape to freedom.
The Sandwich First Baptist Church’s major role in the Underground Railroad was to provide shelter to enslaved men and women seeking freedom in Canada. The historic church later became a focal point for many anti-slavery activities. As Blackthen wrote: “A hole on either side of the floor in the Sanctuary still exists. That hole allowed those who were been sought after by bounty hunters to escape into another hole located at the bottom of the Church.”
Historians say the border location of Windsor and Sandwich made it “an ideal destination” for escaped slaves. Talbot, who is also a coordinator of Sandwich First Baptist Church, is proud of how far the church has come. “We have survived 180 years and we’re still standing,” she said during the church’s 180-year anniversary in 2019. “I’m one of the Underground Railroad [descendants] and I love it. I’m glad I am who I am,” she said.
Apart from the church offering hiding spots, Talbot said: “There would be blankets, because we would never know how long the bounty hunters would be in the area.”
First built as a log cabin in 1847, the church was rebuilt by free and fugitive slaves with hand-hewn lumber and bricks. All members helped in its construction by giving donations or making bricks from local materials, a report said. It was finally dedicated in August of 1851. Due to its connection to the anti-slavery movement, the church was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1995. In 2000, the church, which has been visited by scores of Black greats like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Rosa Parks, was designated a National Historic Site.
Currently, it’s not known just how many escaped slaves were saved as records were not kept, but there’s no doubt that the church risked it all so others could be free.