Ex­plor­ing the his­toric links to the Un­der­ground Rail­road and Cana­dian black his­tory in Chatham-kent, Ont.

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Heather Green­wood Davis

How the U.S. Fugi­tive Slave Act of 1850 shaped Chatham-kent, Ont.

WHEN THE AMER­I­CAN Fugi­tive Slave Act passed in 1850, slaves caught any­where in the United States could be re­turned to their own­ers. Their only hope of es­cap­ing the bru­tal sys­tem was to head north to Canada, where the slave trade was abol­ished in 1807. For many, the area of choice was south­west­ern On­tario’s mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Chatham-kent, a stop­ping point on the Un­der­ground Rail­road — a se­cret net­work of safe houses that brought 30,000 to 40,000 fugi­tive slaves to Canada. Chatham-kent’s lo­ca­tion on Lake Erie was just far enough from the bor­der to de­ter slave catch­ers from kid­nap­ping these es­capees and re­turn­ing them to cap­tiv­ity. And once they came, they stayed. “In the 1850s, one-third of the pop­u­la­tion of this area was black,” ex­plains Saman­tha Mered­ith, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor at the Black Mecca Mu­seum in down­town Chatham. “That was more than any­where else in On­tario.” The mu­seum and the nearby Bux­ton Na­tional His­toric Site and Mu­seum form a Cana­dian black his­tory trail that goes far be­yond the Un­der­ground Rail­road that links them and sheds light on a topic that of­ten goes un­taught in Cana­dian schools. Kim­berly Head, Bux­ton Na­tional His­toric Site and Mu­seum’s as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor, says many peo­ple are shocked to learn that Cana­di­ans owned African slaves. Slav­ery ex­hibits range from neck-yoke tor­ture de­vices to a 1.8-me­tre-long by halfme­tre-deep bunk used on a slave ship to hold as many as six full-grown peo­ple ab­ducted from Africa and trans­ported to North Amer­ica. While de­vices such as these are of­ten linked to the Amer­i­can slave ex­pe­ri­ence, they were also used in Canada. The mu­seum, which is built on the orig­i­nal site of a “blacks-only” colony once known as the El­gin Set­tle­ment, shares suc­cess sto­ries, too. Tours of the 170-yearold prop­erty ex­plain how the colony pro­duced doc­tors, states­men and war he­roes mere decades af­ter they es­caped bondage. In the mid-1800s, how­ever, some Cana­di­ans op­posed the colony. “Our only de­sire is that blacks be sep­a­rated from the whites and that no en­cour­age­ment be given to their mi­gra­tion from the United States or any­where else,” said Chatham res­i­dent Ed­win Lar­will, in an 1849 pub­lic de­bate on the is­sue. Wil­liam King, an Ir­ish rev­erend who founded the com­mu­nity, had to en­list the sup­port of black set­tlers in the area, the Pres­by­te­rian church and the fu­ture Fa­ther of Con­fed­er­a­tion George Brown to make the set­tle­ment a suc­cess. In 1851, the de­seg­re­gated school on site was so lauded that more white par­ents be­gan to send their chil­dren there, and lo­cal whites-only schools were forced to close. “There was a lot of hope then,” notes Head, but it would be a mis­take to think that the in­te­grated school im­me­di­ately ended racism. “Peo­ple who had pre­vi­ously owned slaves were still very present, and it took a long time for at­ti­tudes to shift. Ed­u­ca­tion is one of the things that re­ally helped to change at­ti­tudes here.”

Learn more about Chatham-kent’s black his­tory through Un­cle Tom’s Cabin His­toric Site at can­­cle­tom.

The in­te­rior (left) and ex­te­rior (above) of the in­te­grated school on the for­mer El­gin Set­tle­ment in Chatham-kent, Ont.

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