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After the Underground Railroad: Finding the African North Americans who Returned from Canada

The Underground Railroad which fugitive slaves followed from the antebellum South to Canada is now a well-known story. But what of those who returned?  In his ongoing research, University of Texas at El Paso historian Adam Arenson explores this little-known aspect of nineteenth- century African American history: the return of blacks from Canada to the U.S. after the Civil War.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs recalled his return to the United States with ambivalence. Born free in Philadelphia in 1823, Gibbs had sought his fortune among the 49ers in California, but by 1858 he had found the hardening racial attitudes of California and the rest of the United States suffocating. Gibbs had gone to Victoria, British Columbia, where he was elected to the City Council in 1866. Content and prosperous, Gibbs nevertheless was enthralled by the Emancipation Proclamation, the defeat of the Confederacy, and the promise of Reconstruction. In 1870, he decided to return south.

“En route my feelings were peculiar,” Gibbs wrote later in his memoir, recalling the moment. “A decade had passed, fraught with momentous results in the history of the nation. I had left California disfranchised and my oath denied… I was returning, and on touch of my country’s soil to have a new baptism through the all-pervading genius of universal liberty. I had left politically ignoble; I was returning panoplied with the nobility of an American citizen.”

Testing the country’s transformation, Gibbs visited his brother, Jonathan Gibbs, the first African American secretary of state in Florida, and attended an African-American political convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Inspired by what he saw, Mifflin Gibbs moved to Arkansas, where he became the first African American elected as a municipal judge. He later served in numerous Republican administrations, and concluded his memoir, published in 1902, with a description of his visit with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Despite these personal successes, a doubt remained in Gibbs’ mind, one that rang out from the

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