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PPD Spotlight: "North Is Freedom" and the Legacy of the Underground Railroad

By David Schonauer   Thursday September 22, 2016


Some came entirely alone.

Others came via the Underground Railroad, with its clandestine network of "conductors" and “stations." They were escaped slaves from the United States in the years before the Civil War, seeking freedom in Canada.

Opening today at the Canadian Embassy  in Washington, DC is the exhibition “North Is Freedom,” which features photographer (and Pro Photo Daily reader) Yuri Dojc’s portraits of the descendants of slaves who came to Canada. The opening coincides with the debut of the nearby Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture  on September 24.

“It’s estimated some 30,000 men, women and children fled north to freedom, settling from the Canadian Maritimes as far west as the Manitoba border. Most came to what is now Ontario, to places such as Windsor, Chatham, Buxton, the Niagara Peninsula, Owen Sound, and larger cities like Hamilton and Toronto,” notes Dojc.

The title of the show comes from the poem “North Is Freedom,” by George Elliott Clarke, Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada:

North is freedom-
Uptown, down-home:
Each book a drum;
Each life a poem.

Dojc, whose previous project, “Last Folio – Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia,” was spotlighted in PPD last year, is based in Toronto, a terminus of the Underground Railroad. He photographed 24 people — farmers and teachers, students and retired people, black and white — who are the great, great grandchildren of enslaved African Americas from the US.

“This project shows we are all one family… I am as much black as I am white. I am of African slaves as I am of Irish immigrants. I am multiracial and we are all cousins,” says Carl Stevenson, one of those photographed by Dojc. Stevenson is a fifth generation descendant of John H. Meads of Baltimore.

“We have proven beyond a doubt our rightful place in Canada’s history. To be included in this project is to finally pay homage to each of our ancestors. They may have had to follow the ‘North Star,’  but we can say to the world, we are here, always have been here, always and in all ways, we remain here,“ says another of Dojc’s subjects, Susan Johnson Washington.

The 30 x 40-inch prints in the exhibition are printed on aluminum, their colors bleached out. A 68-page catalog accompanies the show.

The project came about a year ago, when Dojc was in Washington, DC for the opening of an exhibition of his “Last Folio” work. Visiting the Canadian embassy, he mentioned to an official that he that he had recently seen a monument to the Underground Railroad in Owen Sound, Ontario, a small town on the shores of Georgian Bay that was the northernmost terminus of the Underground Railroad. The project was then developed through the embassy.

Like Dojc’s earlier project on the European culture lost to the Holocaust, “North Is Freedom” uses still images to construct a story with both historic and personal dimensions.

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