The little town of Chatham, Ontario is the terminus of a very important railroad – one without tracks or engines. The Underground Railroad brought escaping slaves to Canada, and many found refuge in Chatham, which became known as the ‘Black Mecca’.
In the 19th century, Chatham was more than a terminus of the Underground Railroad, it was a hotbed of the anti-slavery movement and notable abolitionists visited the town. In 1854, Frederick Douglass took part in Emancipation Day celebrations here, and afterwards commented, “I saw men, women and children, who until a short time ago were under the rod of the slave driver, administering for their own good.” Every Labor Day since 1924, an annual re-enactment has celebrated Homecoming at Buxton, a unique settlement nearby that was built by slaves.
John Brown held clandestine meetings at Chatham’s First Baptist Church in 1858. Just 15 months later, Brown was captured at Harper’s Ferry, and executed. But Chatham’s annual John Brown Day on May 5, still celebrates the life and legacy of this remarkable man. “As a young man, John Brown saw a black boy being beaten with a shovel and it changed him,” says Gwen Robinson, a local octogenarian historian. “He became an abolitionist.”
Robinson volunteers with the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and has spent her life researching the earliest black families who contributed to building Chatham. She’s proud of being a descendent of Mary Ann Shadd, Canada’s first female newspaper publisher; The Provincial Freeman, the first black newspaper, began publication in 1853.
On the site of one of the first churches for African Americans in Chatham, a peaceful little park, Freedom Park, now stands. In it is the bust of Mary Ann Shadd, the work of sculptor Artis Lane, her great great niece. Lane has famously designed bronze portraits of Rosa Parks, former President George H. W. Bush, Nelson Mandela and Henry Kissinger. The National Congress of Black Women commissioned Lane to create a bronze bust depicting women’s-right advocate and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. The bust was unveiled in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama and remains on display in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Centre.
The Society is a gold mine of information about those who settled here and their experiences. Many from both sides of the border come to research family histories, though this can prove difficult. Many escaping slaves hid their backgrounds to protect themselves from recapture and their families from reprisals. This has often made it difficult to trace family roots.
Even once they had left the South along the Underground Railroad, slaves weren’t safe. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in effect made every citizen in the U.S. a slave catcher, and many blacks were only self-emancipated. Professional slave catchers earned $5 for every slave they returned and half that for the bodies of dead slaves. So the small matter of the Canadian border wasn’t going to stop them. For people of colour, life was precarious, even in Canada, but many made a life here.
Harriet Beecher Stowe based Tom, the main character of her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the life of Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who ultimately made his home in this area. Now a museum, Henson’s homestead in nearby Dresden is just one of several museums which teach about the history of this infamous period of North American history.
The Dawn Settlement which he and others founded in the 1830’s opened one of the first schools for black children. It also offered an industrial training school, which included a mill and a sawmill. Slavery deprived people of education and the opportunity to develop a range of skills that would allow them to become self-sufficient. The Dawn Settlement tried to redress this imbalance.
While slavery did not exist in Canada in those early years, discrimination did. It would be another century before the Civil Rights movement swept North America.