In 1806, Michelle’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Dennis Calico was born into slavery on a plantation in Tennessee and subsequently sold to the Robbins’ plantation. His new master offered Dennis freedom if he married Jane (who the master had children with) and took the name Robbins. Dennis and his new family came to Canada’s Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Ont., using the Underground Railroad — the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in North America, used by enslaved African Americans to escape into “free states” and/or British North America (Canada). This “railroad” involved a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the U.S. during the early to the mid-19th century. Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 total “fugitives” escaped to Canada.
MEET THE PEOPLE
Michelle – North Buxton
Michelle is a fifth-generation Canadian. On both her mother’s side of the family (Handsor) and her father’s side of the family (Robbins), her ancestors migrated to Canada to escape slavery in the United States.
For many people escaping slavery, crossing Lake Erie was one of the last steps to finally achieving freedom.
The Elgin (Buxton) Settlement, founded in 1849, became home to approximately 2,000 people of African descent by the mid-19th century. Like Michelle’s ancestors who settled there in 1866, the people who arrived in this farming community found opportunities they had never had before.
Many people who sought refuge in Buxton ended up returning to the United States after 1865 (the passing of the 13th Amendment/abolishment of slavery). Like the Robbins, some families stayed in Buxton, where they continue to live today as generational farmers.
In 1924, by the pear tree in the pasture fields of Charles & Constance Robbins (Michelle’s great-grandparents) that still stands there today, Buxton had its first “homecoming.” With an idea brought to the community by Reginald & Minnie Robbins, the event intended to bring back former residents who had relocated to other parts of Canada and the U.S. to visit the community. Today, descendants of former slaves see the event as a pilgrimage “home.” What started as a one-day event has evolved into a full four-day celebration where people celebrate their heritage through music, conferences, and various activities in the community.
Michelle describes Buxton as the most welcoming community you could ever visit. "Everybody knows everybody, and a lot of us are related.” While she may live in Chatham, Ont., her heart is in Buxton.
"When I see that North Buxton sign, I know I am home."
Michelle is worried about the lake’s preservation and wishes more people cared about its protection. As a child, Michelle spent a lot of time in Port Alma, exploring the shoreline by her school friend’s house. Today, most of the coastline she used to enjoy is completely gone due to erosion. There are special places to Michelle’s childhood that she wants to share with Layla, but they are either gone or blocked by caution signs.
“I want to be able to have the same surroundings for generations to come. I want my grandkids to play in the water and have it be safe for them. I want to give the same great memories I have of Lake Erie to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
In the future, when people look out across Lake Erie, Michelle hopes they will reflect on its history as a symbol of hope and freedom for people fleeing. She also hopes future generations will learn more about the Black history explicitly tied to the lake and region, and Canadian Black history in general.
“I feel like now is the perfect time for people to commit to learning more.”
Lake Erie and the millions of people who rely on it for their drinking water, local jobs, and so much more need your help.
The health of Lake Erie continues to decline. Action is needed more than ever to restore its health for current and future generations.
You can make a difference. Here’s how you can help protect the lake and support the people who are closely connected to it.