In African culture, the storyteller – the keeper of oral history – holds the title of griot. A prestigious position, the griot acts as a guardian of family memory, ensuring the lives of ancestors aren’t reduced only to marked graves, single epitaphs.
And when Bryan Walls – author of The Road That Led to Somewhere, an account of his great-great-grandparents’ escape from slavery – was growing up in the 1950s, the family griot was Aunt Stella Butler. At gatherings at her home in Puce, Ont., a small town outside of Windsor, Aunt Stella would set the table with fried chicken, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. Sometimes she and her visitors would play the tiny wooden piano, soulful voices singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other spirituals from days past. And she would share the stories of her ancestors, whose journeys began on the continent of Africa, wound through the plantations of North Carolina and continued to the rural lands of Canada.
She would tell Bryan how his great-great-great-grandparents, Hannabal and Jubil, were forced from their homeland of Africa and sold as slaves to a tobacco plantation owner in North Carolina. And how Hannabal escaped from the plantation in his later years, running from bounty hunters and “negro dogs” – bloodhounds trained from birth to track the scent of fugitive slaves – until he died of a heart attack in his pursuit of freedom.
She also told him stories of his great-great-grandfather, John Walls, who was born a slave on the same plantation in 1813. But, remarkable for the time, John formed a deep friendship with the slaveowner’s son, Daniel. When Daniel became fatally ill in his thirties, it was John he turned to, asking him to care for his white wife, Jane, and their four children. He also declared John a free man.
Months later, John and Jane fell in love and decided they would travel to a free state and marry. But the journey would be a seditious undertaking: in North Carolina, not only were interracial relationships illegal, but they were sure to unleash a maelstrom of fury from the community. The couple, along with the children, fled the plantation at night and headed toward Canada.
Slave owners quickly put a bounty on John’s head. The group travelled at night, veiled by the forests of North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana. They also travelled incognito: at times, Jane pretended that John was her slave, rather than her companion. In one case she tied him to a wagon wheel and whipped him to satisfy Kentuckian slave patrollers’ curiosity.
The fugitives were sheltered and fed along the way by white and black volunteers on the Underground Railroad. In Indiana, a white Quaker abolitionist married the couple in a quiet outdoor ceremony known as “jumping the broom.” They crossed the Detroit River on an abolitionist-run boat, finally finding safety in Puce in 1846.
Over his lifetime, John accrued 200 acres of land, much of which remained in his family’s hands for generations. The couple also had six children of their own. And – never forgetting their own complicated journey – their home became a refuge for other emancipated slaves, a final terminal on the Underground Railroad.
In recounting these stories, Aunt Stella also passed down the words that John told his own children: “You are a black, be proud and strong. Remember, you are a slave’s descendant, just as good as anyone.”
“The story, for its time, was stranger than fiction,” says Bryan Walls, who graduated with a doctor of dental surgery degree from the University of Toronto in 1973. “But through genealogical research, I’ve been able to underscore that it’s not only true, but it’s unquestionably true.”
For more than 25 years, Walls, 58, has been preserving his family’s history in various forms: in 1980, he published The Road That Led to Somewhere, an account of Jane and John Walls’ journey through the Underground Railroad. He recently finished writing a libretto based on his book, which is set to be produced on Broadway in 2006. And he has been operating the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum in Puce since 1985. Intertwining the story of the Walls family with the larger history of North American slavery, the site relates the struggles of the estimated 40,000 African-Americans who followed the path to freedom in Canada.
The clandestine network known as the Underground Railroad was run by abolitionists who helped fugitives escape to the northern United States and Canada. Existing from the early 1800s to the end of the Civil War in 1865, it operated on railroad terminology: conductors were black and white abolitionists who helped usher passengers to stations (safehouses, usually 25 to 30 kilometres apart, which provided shelter and sometimes food) until they reached their final terminal of freedom. Fugitives moved most often at night, usually by foot, and always under the threat of punishment or death from slave patrollers eager for a $10 reward. Navigational tools were few: the North Star – the Underground Railroad’s most powerful metaphor for freedom – proved a steadfast guide. Moss, which often grows on the north side of trees, also served as a compass. Survival lay in one’s ability to remain invisible, to rely on instinct and to tap into the arcane network of supporters. “Riding this train broke the laws of the land, but the laws of God are higher than man’s,” wrote one balladeer.
In the ninth grade, his family moved to the city of Windsor, where Walls attended the all-white Catholic Assumption high school, which he describes as “a real culture shock.” But he excelled, playing football and becoming class president in his senior year. In Grade 10, his dentist noticed the teen’s interest in his profession and invited him to a banquet featuring the dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry. “I said, That’s what I want to be, I want to be a dentist.” He never veered from his declaration. In 1969, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Windsor, and subsequently earned a doctor of dental surgery degree from U of T. At the age of 27, he opened his own dentistry practice in Windsor.
It was three years after Walls opened his dental office that the history of his ancestors took hold of him. It was the fall of 1976, and he had cast a new set of dentures for a cousin, who had shown up at the appointment with tears running down his face. “Aunt Stella is selling the family property,” he said.
Thinking her family would not want to keep the acreage, Aunt Stella, then 92, had given power of attorney to her lawyer, who sold the land for $35,000. The thought of losing his great-great-grandfather’s homestead was unbearable to Walls. He negotiated with the lawyer and the new owners, and eventually reclaimed the land for $40,000. “They [the new owners] didn’t realize the significance it had to our family. It represented freedom. And our ancestors’ burial ground was here …” He stops. “We couldn’t get to a point where we had to ask permission to come back and visit the graves.”
On a warm November evening, the first night of his ownership, an elated Walls took his two young sons out to sleep in the log cabin. Around 2 a.m., he was startled awake. “I thought I heard something at the door, and I checked to see if anyone was there.” No one was, but he was left with a current of strange emotions running through him, and the feeling that something – possibly the spirits of his ancestors – had been present.
The next morning, full of exuberance, he ran through the property and along the site’s creek. He knew that he wanted to write a book based on his ancestors’ history – that it was “part of my destiny, and God’s purpose for my life.” “They weren’t really famous figures of that period of history, not like Harriet Tubman or Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frederick Douglass, but they were like many, many thousands who felt that freedom was important, that making the best of their talents was important.”
That same day, he began collecting from Aunt Stella the details of his great-great-grandparents’ journey. Over the next four years, he wrote the manuscript for The Road That Led to Somewhere. “It all stemmed from these strong emotions that come – people can call it inspiration – when you’re given a thought you can’t get rid of, and it just keeps churning inside of you.” “That,” he says, “became the starting point of my writing journey.”
At the same time, Walls, along with his family, decided to develop the property into the John Freeman Walls Historical Site. He calls it “a family labour of love.” Over a series of years, his father, brother and uncles constructed almost every building on the site. They stripped the modern siding off the log cabin, and restored it to its original 19th-century state. They laid a foundation and erected a new roof on a large log cabin donated by the Ministry of Natural Resources. The cabin now serves as home to an international gospel concert every August. Walls’ daughter Brittany, an aspiring singer, has opened every concert since the age of three, delivering poignant renditions of “O Canada.”
The men also crafted the furnishings for the buildings. During a trip to Memphis in 1985, Walls and his uncles stopped at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The motel – now a civil-rights museum – was at that time in a state of disrepair. They asked permission to take a small number of bricks from the building.
On their return to Puce, Walls and his uncles fashioned the bricks into an elegant four-foot-high cross. It hangs between the chapel’s two tiny windows, surrounded by rays of sunlight.
In 1991, Walls was involved in a car accident that left him with fractured vertebrae, and a legacy of chronic pain. Shortly after the collision, he began to lose dexterity in his hands. Walls began dropping his dental instruments, and realized he could hurt his patients. Six months later, his doctor ordered him to stop working. Many nights he sleeps sitting up. Some nights he sleeps for two hours; others, not at all. “You learn to live with the pain,” he says. “I do it through my faith by saying, Lord, command me to do the impossible, to overcome it.”
Somehow, through his ordeal, he has continued to impart his message of racial equality. He has earned both an Order of Canada and Order of Ontario for his promotion of black history, and lectures frequently to Toronto police officers on the need for racial harmony. He has released educational material and a CD, which are distributed largely to new police recruits and schools, promoting his Mutual Respect Campaign of racial tolerance.
Two years ago, Walls began working on a form of storytelling befitting a present-day griot: a libretto. Each morning, he would lift a tiny table into the family cemetery, and – the tools of a dentist now replaced with the instruments of a writer – carefully shape the story. He originally sat by the gravestones of John and Jane Walls, but eventually, he says, the sound of their spirits became too loud and intrusive. So he moved his table near the area of those he had known firsthand: his father and Uncle Earl. In the comfort and safety of their spirits, he wrote for as long as there was light. He often continued to write in the silence of night in his own home, after his family was safely in bed, but preferred to be near his ancestors’ quiet wisdom.
Near the end of each tour of the historical site, Bryan Walls points out a world map on a wall of the museum. Every time a visitor comes from a new region, a family member pushes a pin into the location. The colourful pinheads form a pointillist picture: step close, and primary colours of red, blue and yellow dart into Australia, Japan, the Caribbean, the United States, Canada. Step away, and the pins merge into a luminous mosaic of countries whose residents have come to hear stories from a modern-day griot who talks about peace, harmony and racial equality. “We have so much to be thankful for as descendants of fugitive slaves; we know they laid a foundation that we could build on, and that’s what progress is all about. It is not just an African-American story. It is a story of liberation,” says Walls. “It’s a history that belongs to all of us.”
Stacey Gibson is managing editor of University of Toronto Magazine.