Jacqueline L. Tobin’s From Midnight to Dawn:
The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad
(with Hettie Jones) Doubleday, 2007

Midnight was the code-name for Detroit; it was the gateway to Canada, the last overtly dangerous stop on the Underground Railroad, which many slaves travelled out of America in pursuit of freedom.

Dawn was the name of one of the free black settlements in southwestern Ontario; it was begun in the 1830s, and developed around the British American Institute, which was established in 1841 on 200 acres of land around present-day Dresden.

Jacqueline Tobin’s From Midnight to Dawn considers the efforts of a variety of individuals in Dawn’s development (also its precursor, Wilberforce, which is now a barely recognizable part of present-day Lucan) and provides a wider context for understanding their roles in the abolitionist movement.

Josiah Hensen played a significant role in the settlement of Dawn. Many images from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the historic site outside of Dresden) bring another dimension to aspects of Hensen’s life and work in Dawn (apparently Harriet Beecher Stowe never denied that her character, Uncle Tom was based on elements of Hensen’s autobiography).

And although the work’s emphasis is text-based, these images, together with the portraits that precede each chapter, help to bring the scholarship off the page. Unfortunately there are, necessarily, large gaps in source material, so this aspect assists in shaping individuals and in bridging the gap between past and present.

There are, however, many segments produced from letters that were published in papers like Henry Bibb’s “Voice of the Fugitive” (which he established in 1851) and Mary Ann Shadd’s Provincial Freeman (which she established in 1853), and in Frederick Douglass’ papers across the border  (The North Star 1847-1851, Frederick Douglass’ paper thereafter).

These, together with excerpts from documents and memoirs related to major historical events (e.g. the raid on Harpers Ferry, the Christiana Riot, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, legislative changes in America) bring primary-source material to the book.

The bulk of From Midnight to Dawn, however, is an accessible narrative, uncluttered by historian-speak. It’s as easy to imagine this being consulted as a reference in high-school history courses as it is to imagine the reader with a casual interest reading it through.

Conflict on central issues (e.g. whether free blacks who came to Canada should be eligible for the same kind of support that fugitive slaves could receive, also the debate surrounding integration versus separatism) is explained clearly.

Where primary source material is lacking (e.g. biographical information on Mary Ann Shadd, who is a fasincating and influential figure to be sure), the gap is readily identified (and lamented).

A variety of communities is considered, on both sides of what Afua Cooper calls the “fluid border”, the Detroit River. Not only the Detroit Frontier, Wilberforce and Dawn, but Chatham, the Elgin Settlement and the Buxton Mission, and the Niagara region (with its Harriet Tubman connection).

From Midnight to Dawn takes a different slant. “The story of the fugitives and free blacks who reached Canada and lived free in the decades before the Civil War is a different story from those usually told, one not limited by the experience of slavery, but defined by the experience of living in freedom. It is a story that celebrates a new beginning.”

Have you been dipping into the past in your reading?