Roaming Mount Royal cemetery, few realize that an unassuming white tombstone memorializes Shadrach Minkins, a self-emancipated Black man who sought freedom in Montreal.
A plaque commemorating Minkins was unveiled at the cemetery on Oct. 17 — recognition that hip-hop artist and historian Aly Ndiaye, also known as Webster, says is long overdue.
"When he crossed the border he kind of slept into anonymity and furthermore today," Ndiaye said. "When we talk about slavery, we have to talk about resistance to slavery."
"Those people, they weren't passive victims of slavery. A lot of them resisted in their own ways," he added.
Minkins worked as an entrepreneur and lived with his family in Montreal until he died in 1875. He was 63 years old.
Formerly enslaved in Norfolk, Va., he had escaped to Boston, Mass., but was arrested nine months later under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The law authorized Southern slave owners to retrieve Black slaves who fled to northern states, since white people had identified them as their property.
In a show of Black resistance, members of the African-American community in Boston descended on the courthouse where Minkins was awaiting trial to rescue him.
They then snuck him into Montreal through the Underground Railroad — a part of Quebec history few Quebecers are exposed to, says Ndiaye.
Marking public history
Dorothy Williams, a historian who specializes in Black Canadian history, attended the unveiling of the plaque for Minkins.
Williams says she makes a point of teaching her students at Concordia University about Minkins's life to draw connections between the province and the Underground Railroad.
Dorothy Williams is a historian and author based in Montreal. (Anna Asimakopulos/CBC)
Installing a plaque at the cemetery is an example of public history, which she says could inspire more scholarship on slavery in Canada.
"It's a sense of taking history out of the books. It becomes real, live, evidence of what you put on paper. And I put it on paper years ago," she said. "We need to give prominence to Shadrach because it's also representative of our community."
Ndiaye lamented how it is often uneasy for Quebecers and Canadians in general to learn and accept that slavery existed in Canada and that emancipated people like Minkins faced racially based, systemic inequalities, like segregation, after they relocated north.
"It's easier to talk about the fact that we used to receive them, and it's always easy to compare ourselves to the United States," he said.
For him, history is a way to understand our colonialism, that is to say, "a way to get in touch with what happened and how we treated racialized people in Canada and Quebec."
Shadrach Minkins escaped to Boston in 1850 before relocating to Montreal. (Holly Cabrera/CBC)
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.