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February 9, 2022 | Alumni

The dentist, the family letters, and the Underground Railroad

By Diane Peters

Bryan Walls smiles as he stands in front of a brick wall.

For Black History Month, U of T's Faculty of Dentistry celebrates one of their most beloved alums, Bryan Walls (DDS 1973), who has spread the word about his family and the Underground Railroad. Photo by Anna Walls

Bryan Walls (DDS 1973) has many accomplishments to his name. He is a recipient of the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. He’s a published author whose book The Road that Led to Somewhere documents his great-great-grandparents’ harrowing journey on the Underground Railroad. He founded and runs the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum in Emeryville, Ont., just outside Windsor.

He credits his profession and his time at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Dentistry as underpinnings for these achievements. “If it wasn’t for dentistry, I never would have been able to get involved in this aspect of the history of Canada.”

It was the financial stability that dentistry offered Walls that allowed him to buy the property in Emeryville, a farm that had been in his family for generations and was a terminus on the Underground Railroad. His status in the community also helped him negotiate that important purchase and then set up and lead the museum.

She lived on the family farm and wove tales of when it served as a final stop on the Underground Railroad

“I used the skills I learned in dentistry, the people skills and the skills of treating people with mutual respect and thinking in terms of reconciliation, to do this work. It became the purpose of my life; preserving, protecting and promoting this history that was the first great freedom movement in the Americas,” he says.

Walls grew up outside Windsor. His aunt Stella (who was really a cousin) was considered the family griot — which is a West African term for storyteller and keeper of the family’s history. She lived on the family farm and wove tales of when it served as a final stop on the Underground Railroad.

In particular, she talked of John and Jane Freeman Walls, a biracial couple who escaped slavery and bigotry in North Carolina. (Jane pretended to be John’s slave owner for much of their trip, and once even whipped him publicly to prove it.) When they reached southern Ontario, they gave back to the cause, helping former slaves as they crossed the border and housing them at their farm. 

I realized it was more than a tooth profession, it was a people profession

As a youth, Walls excelled in his studies and the local dentist took an interest in his future. When the dean of the Faculty of Dentistry came to Windsor to speak, the dentist took Walls to hear him. “There was a shortage of dentists in our community at the time and he was here to recruit young students,” Walls recalls. He loved what Roy Ellis — who served as dean from 1947 to 1969 — had to say. “He left a really positive impression on my heart and mind.” That and Walls’ admiration for his own dentist made him decide on his future career and where he would study.

Windsor had just one Black dentist at the time, and he began to mentor young Walls, helping him understand what courses to take and skills to develop while doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Windsor. It worked: Walls was accepted and joined the class of 1973 at the University of Toronto.

He recalls dental school as a “stimulating mental, physical and spiritual experience. I realized it was more than a tooth profession, it was a people profession.” He also learned a great deal about striving to be the best. “I learned the importance of excellence. I was told that perfection is hard to obtain, but we demand of all students to try and strive for excellence.”

In the attic, he found a letter pleading John and Jane to help a U.S. slave find freedom

After graduation, Walls returned home and began practicing in Windsor. Just three years later, his cousin came into the office, crying. “Mom has sold the farm.” Walls was stunned: he knew how important that property was to the family, and to Canadian history. 

He managed to purchase the property back from the new buyer — that buyer got it for $35,000, but $40,000 and an explanation of the importance of the property sealed the deal. Walls then went to visit his aunt to explain what he had done. The 92-year-old told him to go up into the attic, where he found a bunch of artefacts, including a letter from the U.S. pleading John and Jane to help a U.S. slave find freedom. 

For the next several years, although Walls was busy with his practise and his family — he and his wife Anna have five children — he wrote his book in 1980 and turned the farm into the historic site in 1985.

I got down on my knees and prayed, and here I am

But in 1991, life changed. A serious car accident left Walls with a fracture vertebrae. He found himself dropping his dental instruments. “My doctor ordered me to stop practising dentistry,” says Walls.  

“I got down on my knees and prayed, and here I am.” Indeed, that life changed allowed Walls to find a new focus, which was this unique and inspiring corner of history. Along with serving as a deacon at this local church, he devoted his time to the historic site and spreading the word about the Underground Railroad. Rosa Parks and her students were regular visitors for many years. It’s a favourite trip for schoolchildren in the area to experience a tangible part of Canadian history.

Walls has garnered numerous awards for his volunteerism and contributions, including the Award of Distinction from the Faculty of Dentistry in 2005, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and the Ontario Black History Society Mathieu Da Costa Award in 2014. 

And while Walls misses the people and the work of his first career in dentistry, he’s managed to find a second purpose in life, and fill it with an infectious kind of positivity and hope. Says Walls: “Sure, Canada may have problems in terms of race relations and systematic racism. But as it relates to my family, I say there’s no better country in the world for a visible minority to live than here in Canada.”