By Corinne Fitzherbert The Victoria Star/Bugle
Walking sticks in hand, Mary Mabee and Bonnie Spence followed the Freedom Trail with reverence.
They stopped to read the story boards placed along the northernmost route of the Underground Railroad and were moved by what they learned.
"It goes to show you there is a hero everywhere," Mabee said as she discovered the challenges faced by Black men, women and children escaping slavery in the south and making the difficult journey north to Canada in the 18th Century.
The Tomlinson Lake Hike to Freedom held on Oct. 3 was a little different this year due to COVID-19, but it still drew several hundred participants to Carlingford. In friend and family bubbles, participants wound their way along the woodland paths, stopping at the replica of the pit house or at the squatter's cabin to learn what life was like for Black families as they made their perilous journey.
Mabee and Spence were taking part in the event for the first time and said they considered it an enriching experience.
"It really is amazing," Spence said. "We didn't know about it before this year, but now we're going to tell everyone."
Every year, the Hike to Freedom expands its presentation of Black history, sharing new elements of the little-known aspects of New Brunswick's past. Recruiting officer Lindsay Titus of Sussex accompanied volunteers with the Co. H. 5th New Hampshire Regiment and Co. I of the 20th Maine Regiment who pay tribute to Atlantic Canadians who served in the American Civil War.
"It's often not known that there may have been 40,000 to 50,000 Canadians who served and of that number, 10,000 were from Atlantic Canada, Titus explained.
Men joined up for a variety of reasons, Titus said, including the quest for adventure or the desire to support family members across the border. Later in the war, a signing bonus was an incentive.
"There were churches here that were preaching against slavery and some would go because of that," he said.
The Underground Railroad is part of pre-civil war history, Titus added, but ending slavery became part of the conflict. Following the battle of Antietam in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln administered the emancipation proclamation and "elevated the war toward a higher cause."
"The was now became a two-cause war; one to keep the country together and secondly to end slavery," Titus stated. "We serve as a northern unit so we are on the side of abolition and union and Lincoln."
The uniformed regiments set up an encampment at the entrance to the Freedom Trail where they practiced drills and talked with visitors throughout the day.
"There's lots to learn and it's fun to do," Titus said of their activities. "We enjoy trying to teach the public about this part of history that is so little known."
The pop-up museum usually erected at the park entrance was omitted this year to prevent people from gathering inside, but much of the information traditionally displayed there was taken outdoors and set up near the replica of the squatter's cabin. Deborah Coleman of the United Empire Loyalists of Canada, New Brunswick branch, explained the role of Quaker history as it relates to the Underground Railroad, along with Ralph Thomas, founding member of the New Brunswick Black History Society.
Coleman said the Quakers of Beaver Harbour near Pennfield offered their help to Black settlers in New Brunswick, going o far as to proclaim that no slave owners were allowed there, 50 years before emancipation.
"We wanted to know where the sign was that said 'no slave owners allowed'," Thomas commented.
Thomas said it took five years of research and collaboration between the groups to establish those facts and now a stone marks the site. It recognizes Beaver Harbour as the first community in British North America where slavery was forbidden.
"It will last forever," Thomas stated.
Coleman noted despite the hardships they faced, Quakers stood up for peace and equality throughout history.
"They were a people ahead of their time," she said.