My Brother's Keeper

African Canadians and the American Civil War

Reviewed by Tanja Hütter

Posted January 22, 2017

My Brother’s Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War is an interesting collection of little-known stories about the ways African Canadians and Americans sought to build better lives for themselves prior to, during, and after the American Civil War. You might be forgiven for assuming that the focus is on black soldiers and the Underground Railroad, but this book also highlights the experiences of doctors, nurses, chaplains, recruiters, immigrants, and refugees.

I found the chapter “The War at Home” particularly compelling. Author Bryan Prince describes how, prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, West Africa and Haiti were considered places to recolonize, where African Americans and African Canadians could govern themselves, free from prejudice and free to rebuild their lives.

Plans for West Africa were quickly dropped when the war broke out, as it was reasoned that putting efforts into winning the American war would make life better for African Americans. However, several groups continued their plans for the “Haytian emigration scheme,” enticed with free passage, the offer of free fertile land, and rumours of the Caribbean island being a haven for black people.

However, questions arose about the high rates of illness and death among travellers, and those who were able to escape back to Canada reported horrific news of brutality and government negligence. Abolitionists in favour of assimilation had always been against the plan, while those who were originally supportive eventually condemned it. Within a few years, the scheme ended.

Tanja Hütter is Online Manager for Canada's History and a great procrastinator.

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