Underground Railroad Code: fact or fiction?

Underground Railroad Code: fact or fiction?

Presented by quilter, Micki Angyal. 

On Feb 19, 2020, forty five people attended Micki Angyal’s presentation about the quilt code possibly used by slaves to communicate along the Underground Railroad. Stories have been handed down the generations about the code but there is no hard historical evidence. Of course, it was a SECRET code, so the lack of evidence is no surprise.

After the U.S. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, the law forced free northern states to return escaped slaves.  Conductors like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass led many escapees to Canada. The journey north was not easy. Secrecy was necessary for escape and information could only be passed by word of mouth, using codes, signs and signals created by slaves. One such code was using quilts.  Various blocks in the quilts gave the slaves clues as to where they had to go.

Stan Grizzle, our 2019 Black History Monthpresenter attended and he recalls his grandmother telling stories about the quilts being used to communicate.  

Mary Simpson told the group about the Damascas Ontario 4-H Life Skills Club up in Wellingtown County.  In 2015, the 4-H members painted a series of 4X4 barn quilts depicting the coded designs Micki told us about. 

English Teacher Lonnie Grover from Glencoe & District Historical Society shared the creative project  she teaches with a fellow Mathematics teacher using barn quilts as an inspiring theme for learning.

Stanley George Sinclair Grizzle

Stanley George Sinclair Grizzle

I Continue the Journey, Presentation by Stan Grizzle as part of Black History Month. 2 p.m. February 20, 2019 – Held at The Archives, 178 McKellar Street, Glencoe, ON

Stan Grizzle and his father both have devoted their lives to fighting racism. Stan discussed the start of the slave trade in Africa at the end of the European middle ages and the era of Portuguese exploration. European exploitation of the western Senegal coast continued for centuries. Slave ships and unspeakable conditions prevailed. The colonization of the West Indies and the American south grew with the economic dependency upon the slave industry.

Stan Grizzle receiving mementos from Lorne Munro and Ken Beecroft at The Archives.
L – R: Stan Grizzle, Lorne Munro, Ken Beecroft

Early Canada did not actively take part in slavery and over time became a haven for runaway slaves from the south. Pacifist religious groups such as Quakers and Mennonites, along with free slaves in the north, developed the “underground railway”, that is a network that assisted the movement and transportation north to U.S. Abolitionist communities and to Canada.

Stan talked of the three waves of struggle to get to Canada, particularly during times of conflict such as the American Revolution, The War of 1812 and of course the American Civil War.

Getting to Canada was not easy. It is difficult to imagine the hardships of the escape and the struggle to survive upon arrival. Many communities were developed in Canada by the escaped slaves and their network of supporters. Today we realize that our heritage and identity has benefitted from this cultural diversity but it was not always so. Even here in predominantly European Canada, the struggle for racial equality has been difficult.

Stanley George Sinclair Grizzle was a Canadian citizenship judge, soldier, political candidate and civil rights and labour union activist. Born in 1918 in Toronto to slave descendants, he was the oldest of seven children.  Stan felt the systemic bigotry and prejudice growing up and into his youth, and vowed to make a difference wherever he could. 

While working as a railway porter as a young man, Grizzle became active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). Upon his return to Canada after serving in Europe during World War II, Grizzle became more active in the union. He was elected president of his union local, and pushed the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to open the management ranks to blacks.

Stan Grizzle Sr. plunged into other causes and was a leader in Canada’s civil rights era of the 1950s, working with the Joint Labour Committee to Combat Racial Intolerance. He worked hard. He understood the value of an education which was so difficult for a person of colour to obtain. He achieved a degree at Ryerson in Toronto. 

In 1959, Grizzle was one of the first Black Canadian candidates to run for election in Ontario politics.  Although he wasn’t elected, he caused Ontario to take notice. In 1960, Grizzle went to work for the Ontario Labour Relations Board. In 1978 he was appointed a Citizenship Judge by Prime Minister Elliott Trudeau. In recognition of his work with the BSCP and his civil rights work, Grizzle received the Order of Ontario in 1990. As further recognition, he received the Order of Canada in 1995. 

On November 1, 2007, a park on Main Street in Toronto’s east end was dedicated the “Stanley G. Grizzle Park” in a ceremony hosted by Toronto Mayor David Miller. Judge Grizzle died in November 2016 at the age of 97, six days before his 98th birthday.

Lorne and Ken B. thanked Stan for his presentation and presented him with an honourarium, which he graciously donated back to historical society. He was also given a Glencoe & District Historical Society medallion and pen as mementos of his visit with us.

Written by Ken Beecroft,