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Freedom's Home
More than any other place, three Ontario towns ended slavery in America


Times Herald
 

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Times Herald photos by TONY PITTS

LOOKING BACK: Gwen Robinson, 71, stands beside the plaque commemorating John Brown's 1858 convention in central Chatham, Ontario. Robinson, a relative of Shadd's, leads the efforts in Chatham to research the history of the thriving black community that arose in southern Ontario in the 19th century.


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Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel by Harriett Beecher Stowe, which Abraham Lincoln said led to the Civil War.


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GUIDING LIGHTS: Some of the people who made Chatham, Ontario, the conscience of North America: Josiah Henson, seated at far left, established the Dawn Settlement at Dresden after escaping from slavery.


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Library of Congress

Dr. Martin Delany, the Union Army's first black officer and the man who probably suggested Harpers Ferry as a target to John Brown.


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FREEDOM SHRINE: The Pioneer Church, which dates back to 1850, contains the organ and pulpit from the original church where the Rev. Josiah Henson preached in Dresden, Ontario. He was the inspiration for the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.


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By TONY PITTS, Times Herald

FATEFUL VISITOR: Images of John Brown hang in the Heritage Room, a museum to the Chatham-Kent area's black history in a Chatham community center. Brown's wife, Mary Ann Brown, is shown at right.


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VOICE FOR JUSTICE: A historical marker in downtown Chatham marks the site where The Provincial Freeman was published by Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black woman to publish a newspaper.


CHATHAM-KENT, Ontario -- The glint and sparkle are gone from week-old snow, and a drab February sky does little to recommend Chatham-Kent to a visitor.

Wedged between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, this is a landscape of tidy farms and handsome towns, though winter has idled the former and dulled the latter.

Chatham-Kent takes its name from an amalgamation of Chatham, a city of 44,000 people, and Kent, a county of 108,000. The population is not quite 95% white, and the community, to all appearances, isn't much different from a thousand other places in North America.

Yet it is different.

The difference is history.

This is where Harriett Beecher Stowe found the inspiration for Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1852 novel that changed Northern attitudes about slavery and galvanized the abolition movement.

John Brown planned his bloody 1859 raid on the federal
armory at Harper's Ferry, a doomed expedition that
presaged the start of the Civil War two years later.

Scores of fugitive slaves disembarked from the Underground
Railroad and began new lives amid the fertile soil and
free air of southern Ontario.

Chatham-Kent is the place, as much as any place, where
a continent's slaves shook off the yoke and claimed their
freedom.

Preserving rich history

"I have a passion," Gwen Robinson said.
"I think our history has to be told."

Her passion began years ago, when her son came home from school in Chatham with an assignment to write about the history
of the local black community. He asked his mother for help in
finding sources, and they quickly discovered the community's rich
oral history had never been organized and written in a
systematic fashion.

Now 71, Robinson has devoted herself to recording that history.
She has written a book, Seek the Truth, and she continues her research at the Heritage Room, a combination museum-archives,
in a community center on Chatham's east side.

"We've really come into being in the last 20 years," she said.

Battle of the Thames

On a map of Chatham-Kent, "line roads" -- straight and sensibly placed -- create geometric patterns pierced by the squiggles of
the Sydenham and Thames rivers.
Those rivers shaped local history. Tecumseh, the brilliant
Shawnee general, died in the Battle of the Thames on
Oct. 5, 1813. One of the decisive battles of the War of 1812,
it pitted British troops and Tecumseh's army against a
well-trained cavalry of Kentuckians, whose victory quite likely
prevented Detroit from being a Canadian city today.

Chatham's original settler, Sally Ainse, was unusual for a pioneer
in every respect. She was a woman, an Indian and a slave owner.
Awarded a grant of 1,600 acres by Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe,
she carved out a farm at the "Forks," where McGregor's Creek
enters the Thames, before her death in 1823.

"She brought her slaves with her," Robinson said.
"It was the beginning of the community."

Original Uncle Tom

Chatham-Kent's emergence as a refuge from slavery began with
the arrival of a group led by the Rev. Josiah Henson, or "Father"
as his admirers called him.
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1789, Henson was bought and sold three times by age 18. By 1830, he had saved $350 to buy his
family's freedom, but instead he was cheated of his life savings.
With his wife and four children, he fled Kentucky and made his
way to Canada.
In 1841, aided by Quakers and abolitionists, several black families bought 200 acres on the Sydenham River near present-day
Dresden. The Dawn Settlement, as it came to be known, was
centered around a vocational school. It also contained orchards,
a rope factory, a sawmill, a gristmill and other industry.
Henson's memoirs, published in 1849, helped to inspire the
melodramatic and wildly popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, which sold
more than 300,000 copies in its first year of publication.
A stage play, with Evita's heart-pounding flight across the
half-frozen Ohio and the wrenching death of Little Eva, was,
if anything, more popular than the novel.
The story was so influential in shaping anti-slavery sentiment that
Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, reportedly told the author,
"So, this is the little lady who made this big war."

Flight from slavery


An even more ambitious black settlement was founded in 1849 by
another pastor, the Rev. William King.
King, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister, immigrated to the United States in 1834 and settled in Louisiana. Though he opposed
servitude, and spoke out against it publicly, he married a woman
who owned slaves and who brought them into their home.
After the deaths of his wife and her father, King inherited 15
slaves and brought them to Ontario, where he set them free.
He also went to the governor general, Lord Elgin, with a plan to
secure land and build homes, churches and schools for refugees
from Southern slavery.
A sympathetic Lord Elgin granted 9,000 acres -- a piece of land
six miles long and three miles wide -- for the Elgin Settlement,
where black families could buy 50-acre farms. At its peak,
the settlement had about 2,000 residents.
King also established a school, which emphasized a classical
education including Greek and Latin. It developed such an
excellent reputation that it attracted dozens of white pupils and
became one of the first integrated schools in North America.
The Elgin Settlement later became known as Buxton, named for
the founder of Britain's Anti-Slavery Society.

Prosperous times

By the 1850s, Chatham's population was one-third black and the
prosperous town had no fewer than five black doctors.
There were black merchants and tradesmen, and black
organizations such as the National Convention for the
Improvement of Free People of Color.
In 1859, Abraham Shadd became the first black to win elective
office in what is now Ontario.
As with many of Chatham's blacks, Shadd was not a former slave.
Born free in Delaware, he chose to leave the United States after
passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which opened the door
to chicanery that saw hundreds of free blacks pressed into slavery.

Shadd was a descendent of Hans Schad, a Hessian soldier who had
been wounded in a Revolutionary War skirmish. During his
recuperation, he moved into the home of a free black woman,
Elizabeth Jackson, and fell in love with her daughter.
They married and had two sons -- one who would keep the name
Schad and whose descendants would be regarded as white, and
another whose name was anglicized to Shadd and whose descendants would be considered black.
Shadd's daughter, Mary Ann, was the first black woman to publish a newspaper.
She also was the editor of The Provincial Freeman and a forceful advocate of
equal rights. During the Civil War, she returned to the States and recruited
blacks for the Union Army.
At age 61, she earned her law degree. She was Gwen Robinson's great-great-aunt.

John Brown's refuge

Another free black who moved to Chatham in the 1850s was Dr. Martin Delany, a physician who would
return to the United States during the war and become the Union Army's first black officer.
Delany, grandson of an African tribal chief and a prolific writer, is regarded as the father of
black nationalism.
It is conceivable, perhaps even likely, that John Brown went to Harper's Ferry on Delany's advice.
Delany was born in Charles Town, the seat of Jefferson County, Va. Harpers Ferry also is in Jefferson
County, which became part of West Virginia in 1863 when that state split from Virginia and the
Confederacy.
In 1858, Brown was a fugitive from bloodshed in Kansas.
He arrived in Chatham with a plan to free 4 million slaves.
"He was looking for men and money, and Chatham had both," Robinson said, "There was a large, affluent (black) population."
On May 8, 1858, Brown and Delaney convened the Chatham Convention, where a constitution was
adopted for a proposed nation for freed slaves. Brown was chosen as commander-in-chief of the
provisional forces.
"Brown was very secretive while he was in Chatham," Robinson said. "He didn't train men in Tecumseh
Park, despite the legends that say he did."
Whether it was Delany who steered him to Harpers Ferry is only conjecture. But in October 1859,
Brown and his band of 21 men made their ill-fated raid on the armory at the confluence of the Potomac
and Shenandoah rivers.
Federal troops led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart defeated the raiders and captured Brown, who was hanged Dec. 2, 1859, at Charles Town -- Delany's hometown.

Community splinters

Only two of Brown's men survived the raid, and one was Osborne Perry Anderson of Chatham. He made
his way back to Canada where Mary Ann Shadd edited A Voice from Harper's Ferry, his first-hand
account of the raid.
After the Civil War, Anderson moved to Michigan. He was not alone in making such a journey.
Perhaps half of Canada's 40,000 blacks moved to the United States after the war.
They were drawn, Robinson said, "by family ties and inclement weather. And remember,
Reconstruction was a good period."
Indeed, Mary Ann Shadd's younger brother, Isaac, moved to Mississippi and was elected
secretary of state.
For those who stayed in Chatham-Kent, the abolition of slavery did not mean the end of discrimination.
The Dawn Settlement faded, and in Chatham, blacks who once lived in all parts of town gradually were
moved into a ghetto across the railroad tracks from downtown.
"Certainly, we were a segregated community," Robinson said. "There were separate schools until 1904."

Traces of the past

Today, Dresden remembers the Dawn Settlement with a historic site, Uncle Tom's Cabin, that draws bus
loads of tourists in the warmer months. Many of those tourists make another stop at the nearby Dresden
Raceway, which offers harness racing and slot machines.
There is still a thriving black community in tiny North Buxton, though it is only a sliver of King's original
colony, which stretched to the north shore of Lake Erie.
Chatham bustles. Its main drag, West King Street, is crowded with shoppers and successfully blends the
aesthetics of a historic downtown with the convenience of a modern mall. But its black community has
dwindled.
In Canada's 2001 census, only 2% of Chatham-Kent's population was black.
Still, the descendants of Chatham-Kent's original black settlers have honored their ancestors with their
accomplishments.
Jesse Binga, for example, founded Chicago's first black-owned bank. Sophia Jones earned a medical
degree from the University of Michigan in 1885 and started the nursing program at Spelman College in
Atlanta. Dr. Samuel Watson moved to Michigan, opened a drug store and became a leader of the
Republican Party.
The brilliant Alfred Lafferty, one of the first graduates of King's school, studied mathematics at the
University of Toronto, worked as a school principal and practiced law for many years in Chatham.
Baseball pitcher Ferguson Jenkins won 284 games, claimed a Cy Young Award and in 1991 became the
first Canadian enshrined at Cooperstown. Matthew Henson, who in 1909 became the first man to reach
the North Pole, was the great-grandnephew of Josiah Henson, the inspiration for Uncle Tom.
"Our people went all over," Robinson said, "and everywhere they went, they did well."

Originally published Sunday, March 2, 2003

Contact Mike Connell at (810) 989-6271 or mconnell@ porthuro.gannett.com.