This is where I learned that the true purpose of education is preparing for a life of service to others
“…you being rooted and grounded in love…” Ephesians 3:17 (New King James Version)
I’ve been a published writer for over 30 years, yet during the past six months, I twice found myself unable to write, even though I desperately needed to express. The first was at the announcement that no charges would be pressed in the death of Michael Brown of Ferguson, MO. The second was after the massacre at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston.
Providentially, this month it was time for me, like my ancestors, to follow the North Star to the home of my maternal family, North Buxton, Ontario, one of four settlements established by slave refugees from the U.S. My husband and I traveled the same route many of them would have used via the Underground Railroad to reach Canada.
My mother, after working 40 years as an immigrant registered nurse in the U.S., returned to the family house, not only because it was home, but also because she preferred the Canadian health care system. Now in her 80s, Mama is doing her part to keep the legacy of Buxton alive, along with her 102-year old aunt who finds U.S. politics comedic—particularly the party national conventions which she always watches. Auntie’s interest in things south of their border is not unusual, as the Black people of Buxton and the surrounding areas have long interacted with and influenced events in the U.S. Reportedly, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (which was part of a much larger plot to turn Virginia into a free, Black state) was planned in the home of a former Buxtonite in the nearby town of Chatham.
One of my rituals when I visit my mother’s land is to walk through the two cemeteries where I can survey my own and the settlement’s history going back over 150 years. I pause and ponder over my great-grandfather, one of the many Black Pullman porters (and one of the first from Canada), who would throw bundles of clothes and copies of Black newspapers off moving a train to his wife and children standing by the tracks. Similarly, my great-grandmother was a writer and co-founder of the local literary club and its newspaper. Nearby, lies Eliza Parker, herself an escaped slave, who along with her husband hid other refugee slaves at their Pennsylvania home, leading to the Christiana Riot of 1851. The riot and the trials that followed were major events in the Abolitionist movement in the U.S. The Parkers were forced to flee via the Underground Railroad to this small Canadian sanctuary. Beside her, several tiny graves of children who perished when smallpox ravaged the settlement in the later 1800s.
Next to the cemetery is the original school house (pictured above) built in 1861 that served as Buxton’s only school until 1964. Now part of the town’s museum, the schoolhouse allows young visitors to re-enact a typical school day for its original students. The quality of Buxton’s educational system is legendary, and its results are far-reaching. Prior to 1890, “over 2,000 Negro graduates of Buxton area schools”1 went into the Deep South working in education, agriculture, and politics. Several of them, including some of my own relatives, influenced the fight for equality and justice in Canada and the U.S., even as far south as here in Mississippi.
It was in this historically-rich environment that I first learned to love learning. This is where I first learned about sustainability—protecting and conserving resources for the sake of future generations. This is where I learned that the true purpose of education is preparing for a life of service to others. Scholarship was not just for personal achievement, but a sacred trust to be used for the uplift of the family, the community, and the race. All of this was grounded in unwavering faith in God.
Like my ancestors, I return to Mississippi and to my students this fall with a renewed sense of purpose and destiny; our family mantra ringing in my spirit: Every place you go and every life you touch should be better when you leave than before you came.
1Ullman, Victor. Look to the North Star: A Life of William King. Toronto: Umbrella Press.
Photo Credits: Renee Moore