Commemorative plaque of formerly enslaved man unveiled at Montreal cemetery


Shadrach Minkins was an enslaved man who escaped from his owner in Norfolk in 1850, was arrested as a fugitive the following year in Boston, Massachusetts, and was rescued there by antislavery activists. Born into slavery, Minkins had various owners before being sold to John DeBree, a career naval officer, in 1849. He worked as a house servant for DeBree until making his escape in May 1850.

After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, DeBree sent a slave catcher to Boston, and Minkins was arrested on February 15, 1851. Hundreds of antislavery activists gathered outside the courtroom where Minkins was being held, and a group of about twenty black men eventually broke through the doors and rescued Minkins, spiriting him through the streets of Boston and arranging for his journey to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

After arriving in Montreal, Minkins married an Irish woman, had four children, and ran a barbershop until his death in 1875. He was 63 years old.

The plaque and gravestone

He was buried in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery in a grave marked by an unassuming white tombstone.

A plaque commemorating Minkins was unveiled at the cemetery on Oct. 17. According to hip-hop artist and historian Aly Ndiaye, recognition is long overdue.

“When he crossed the border he kind of slept into anonymity and furthermore today,” Ndiaye said. “When we talk about slavery, we have to talk about resistance to slavery.”

“Those people, they weren’t passive victims of slavery. A lot of them resisted in their own ways,” he added.

Dorothy Williams, a history professor at Concordia University, says she makes a point of teaching her students at Concordia University about Minkins’s life to draw connections between the province and the Underground Railroad.

Aly Ndiaye

Installing a plaque at the cemetery is an example of public history, which she says could inspire more scholarship on slavery in Canada.

“It’s a sense of taking history out of the books. It becomes real, live, evidence of what you put on paper. And I put it on paper years ago,” she said. “We need to give prominence to Shadrach because it’s also representative of our community.”