After the Underground Railroad: African Americans Returning from Canada and the Forgotten History of Transnational Reconstruction,

Adam Arenson, University of Texas at El Paso


Canada has been understood as a Promised Land for escaping slaves. Yet after the Emancipation Proclamation, many African Americans returned to the United States—and many went back to the South, following family ties, eager to join the fight against slavery and the struggle for racial equality. Using U.S. and Canadian Census records, pension files, newspaper clippings and the occasional autobiography or papers collection, this study recovers their story. It argues that their time in Canada gave African Americans the power of comparison: When struggling for access to social and political participation in the United States, they had a reference point for formulating notions of freedom after slavery. This project places African American political actions and cultural arguments within a transnational, hemispheric context. It pieces together the meaning of the U.S.-Canada border to African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction, after the era of the fugitive slaves.