The Legacy of John Freeman Walls
If These Walls Could Talk
story of John Freeman Walls is as unique as it is familiar. It is
but one of several million stories of enslavement in the southern
United States during the 1800s. John Walls left the south with his
master’s widow and her four children in 1842. In 1845 they
landed in Amherstburg and he claimed his right to freedom. A year
later the family settled in Puce where John, a skilled carpenter,
built a two-story log cabin home.
life of hardship in the aptly named Troublesome Creek, North Carolina
was unfortunately commonplace in those times among those of African
descent. His story begins with the close friendship between John
and his master’s son, Daniel, both born in 1813. It was this
relationship that provided John with his first experience of interracial
equality and respect – a rare gem in those troubled times.
The uncommon friendship between slave and slave master’s son
set the stage for this saga. Though it would not always serve to
ease the burden of enslavement, in the end, this bond provided John
with his freeman papers and entrusted him with Daniel’s wife
and children. The circumstances that arose from Daniel inheriting
the Walls’ plantation, and his untimely death, would ultimately
usher John onto his incredible journey.
story’s uniqueness is furthered by John’s flight to
freedom – scholars estimate a mere 40,000 to 100,000 slaves
travelled the road to liberty in the north. (By 1860 some four million
enslaved blacks lived in the southern United States.) Unlike the
main character from the groundbreaking 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s
Cabin,” John Walls was not reconciled to die within the confines
of racial discrimination. The mere fact that he would challenge
the status quo and strive to make his dream of a better life become
reality makes his story extraordinary. The details of his perilous
journey make it amazing.
courage and strength were required on the road north. The slave
patrollers and their hounds were often near. The fate that awaited
a captured fugitive was unspeakable. To make John’s situation
even more unusual was the fact that his future wife Jane was white
and his former master’s widow. They travelled with her four
white children and Corliss, a house slave from the Walls’
plantation. Such an unmistakable group of sojourners would not easily
first half of the journey they navigated themselves – with
only those words from John’s childhood to guide them. For
weeks they travelled under the cloak of night before stumbling upon
sympathetic abolitionist Quakers Ephraim and Mary Stout in Indiana.
It was through them that John and Jane learned of the Underground
Railroad. This secretive, unorganized movement of abolitionists
– some white, some free blacks and some formerly enslaved
blacks – offered food, shelter and guidance to those seeking
freedom. Railroad terminology was adopted by the movement as a measure
to confuse slave hunters. (The image of a secret underground railroad
was so effective that in the 1800s, many people actually believed
that a train ran from the south to freedom in the north.)
network of individuals employed several ingenious methods to secretly
convey directions and information to other members and to the freedom
seekers fortunate enough to encounter the Underground Railroad.
By the 1830s several routes to the northern free states and Canada
had been developed. Travellers were being sent into the south to
teach songs encoded with information to enslaved blacks. One such
song was “The Drinking Gourd Song” which instructed
slaves to leave in winter or early spring and follow the North Star
along the bank of the Tombigbee River, and look for dead trees that
were marked with mud and charcoal drawings. The following verses
led the freedom seekers to the Ohio River, usually a year later,
when it was frozen over and, thus, more easily crossed. On the other
side they were reportedly met by “conductors” from the
Underground Railroad in the free states and transported to Canada.
Walls family was not fortunate enough to have had previous knowledge
of this great freedom movement when they set out on their journey
from Troublesome Creek in the spring of 1842. However, they did
benefit greatly from it on the remainder of their journey. It was
also from their safe harbour with the Stouts, and with new knowledge
of underground “stations” along the way, that Jane and
Corliss were able to return to the Walls’ plantation and lead
seven more toward freedom.
long road reached freedom in the summer of 1845 on the shores of
Amherstburg. From there the Walls family would settle in Puce and
build a homestead that still stands today. John and Jane raised
ten children there and engrained in them the necessity of love and
harmony toward all. Their home would also become a terminal on the
Underground Railroad for other blacks seeking salvation from slavery.
Dr. Bryan Walls chronicled his
great great grandfather’s
life in “The Road That Lead To Somewhere”
and Jane’s journey inspired many – both during their
own lifetime and in the more than 160 years since they first headed
north in search of a dream. Strong beliefs of equality and freedom
were engrained into their children, and have been passed down through
eight generations so far. These descendents are expressing those
same convictions in several creative and powerful ways.
1976, Dr. Bryan Walls began four years of research that culminated
in the book “The Road That Led To Somewhere.” His Aunt
Stella, granddaughter to John and Jane, told the majority of the
stories included in this epic to the author.
She was about twenty-three years old when her grandparents passed
away in 1909 and 1910. And those years had been richly steeped in
oral history. Bryan’s grandfather Frank, some thirteen years
Stella’s junior, confirmed many of the stories that form the
basis for the book.
1980, the family self-published Bryan’s fictionalized biography
of his great-great-grandparents’ fascinating lives. Written
from the point of view of his Uncle Earl, 1952 Canadian heavyweight
boxing champion, the book allows the author to span over a century
and comment not only on the treacherous journey that his ancestors
endured to reach a land of freedom, but also about the legacy that
has been passed down through generations of their descendents.
documentation of the Walls’ family’s beginnings in Canada
not only provides their relatives with a concrete family history,
it also offers local, national and international communities a glimpse
into a significant part of their own past.
epic novel made its way into the hands of a government official
that felt it an important part of Canadian and American history.
Thus, the land on which the original two-story log cabin was built
became a historical site. This property, and the desire to preserve
it, were catalysts for the creation of the book. Through the diligent
efforts of Bryan, two of his brothers, Allen and Winston, and with
the aid and constant support of the rest of their families, the
historical site has since been expanded to include an Underground