Follow the North Star and Find American History in Chatham-Kent, Ontario

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Follow the North Star in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, to discover what you didn't learn in high school.

Follow the North Star in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, to discover what you didn’t learn in high school.

Eying the Big Dipper in the evening sky the other night, I held back tears. Don’t worry, it was all good, I’m just a sentimental baby sometimes. Earlier this month I followed the North Star to Chatham-Kent located in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, and learned it was more than just a terminus to the Underground Railroad during the mid-1800s.

How much more? Recognize the names Uncle Tom (and his cabin), John Brown and Frederick Douglass? Just as significant to the abolitionist movement, but probably not in your U.S. history books, are these important people in Chatham-Kent’s history and whom I became acquainted with, Dr. Martin Delany, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, James Monroe “Gunsmith” Jones, Dr. Sophia Jones, and Rev. William King.

I tried my hand at the classical educational taught during the mid-1850s in the Buxton Settlement, don't think I did so well.

I tried my hand at the classical educational taught during the mid-1850s in the Buxton Settlement, don’t think I did so well.

They Didn’t Teach Me About Chatham-Kent, Ontario, in History Class
Prior to visiting Chatham-Kent as a guest of Chatham-Kent Tourism and as a TBEX conference attendee, I had no idea how much American history is anchored in this community. I suppose there are four stories to history, what actually happened, what those who were there recount, what ancestors of those who were there have been told, and what’s written in history books. Visiting prominent sites as Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site and Buxton National Historic Site & Museum were eye-opening, but more intriguing was learning about some of the communities and accomplishments made by people who once lived here as told by their descendants.

Trees in bloom at Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Chatham-Kent, Ontario, June 4, 2013.

Trees in bloom at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Chatham-Kent, Ontario, June 4, 2013.

Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum
I walked through an area of Chatham with Ms. Blair Newby, curator of Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum and descendant of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Family pride exudes in Ms. Newby’s voice as she shared Shadd’s accomplishments including her being the first black woman in North America to publish and own a newspaper, “The Provincial Freeman” (1853 – 1857), an anti-slavery publication.

“When you know your history, you know your greatness,” Ms. Newby said, quoting her mother.

Ms. Blair Newby stops in front of the First Baptist Church in Chatham where John Brown held a convention and finalized plans to attack Harpers Ferry.

Ms. Blair Newby stops in front of the First Baptist Church in Chatham where John Brown held a convention and finalized plans to attack Harpers Ferry.

Walking through Chatham, Ms. Newby paused and pointed out areas of interest. She showed where shops owned by black entrepreneurs once stood during the 1850s and the First Baptist Church where infamous American abolitionist John Brown held a convention on May 10, 1858. He chose Chatham as the location of the convention because of the large affluent black population.

This is where Brown finalized plans for a sovereign nation within the United States which included an attack in Harpers Ferry, Va. Well, if you’re familiar with history, you know how this ended. He was found guilty of treason against the U.S. and executed in December 1859.

BME Freedom Park features a bronze bust of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

BME Freedom Park features a bronze bust of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Paying homage to the area’s black history is BME Freedom Park which sits in a neighborhood where the former British Methodist Episcopal Church of Chatham sat (Wellington and Princess Streets). In response to the problem of slavery in the U.S., the BME Church formed and the Chatham church was founded in 1856. Symbolism is sprinkled throughout the park including a portion of the pathway representing broken lives of slavery, path to freedom and freedom. A bronze bust of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who has been declared by Canadian government as a Person of National Historic Significance, is the park’s focal point.

The Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum has been referred as "One of the pre-eminent African Canadian collections in North America."

The Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum has been referred as “One of the pre-eminent African Canadian collections in North America.”

Referred as “one of the pre-eminent African Canadian collections in North America,” by historian Dr. Karolyn Smardz-Frost PhD, the Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum has an extensive collection of artifacts, audio interactive life-sized figures of prominent blacks in the area’s history and stories presented through audio and visual presentations. Stop in and meet Ms. Newby, she’s a pleasure, full of knowledge and an authentic bridge between the community’s past and its present.

Image of Rev. Josiah Henson at the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Image of Rev. Josiah Henson at the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Meeting the Man Behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rev. Josiah Henson was born into slavery in Maryland, escaped and found freedom on Canadian soil. His autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself” (1849), is believed to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character George Harris in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). The book raised awareness about slavery in the U.S. and is believed to be a catalyst in prompting the Civil War. [Legend states Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 and said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Source: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center]

That's Uncle Tom's Cabin at the end of the grass!

That’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the end of the grass!

The former slave was more than an inspiration for a character in a much-read and controversial novel. Mr. Steven Cook, the historic site’s manager explained Rev. Henson founded the Dawn Settlement in Dresden (today, Dresden is a municipality in Chatham-Kent) which offered slaves who escaped from the U.S. an opportunity to begin a new life.

Mr. Steven Cook, Manager of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, discusses Rev. Josiah Henson's life.

Mr. Steven Cook, Manager of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, discusses Rev. Josiah Henson’s life.

He was quite the man in demand. Henson was a reverend in the Methodist church, gave lectures about abolishing slavery and during a tour in England, Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle for a meeting. Like Shadd, he has been named a Person of National Historic Significance.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site allows visitors the opportunity to learn about the real Uncle Tom including touring his cabin and other period buildings, viewing the cemetery, seeing period artifacts, and interacting with exhibits.

Listening to Cook and touring the facilities, I just couldn’t believe this was the first I was learning about this Canadian side of American history. When visiting, be sure to meet Mr. Cook, I’m sure he’ll make you smile.

Various shackles and torture devices used on slaves, on display at Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Various shackles and torture devices used on slaves, on display at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Ringing the Bell of Freedom
Let’s go back to the beginning of this blog post. Why did looking at the Big Dipper bring tears to my eyes? During the mid-1800s (around late 1830s – 1865) slaves seeking freedom followed the North Star to Canada using the secretive network called the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t an actual railroad system but a network of homes, hideaways and trails fugitive slaves followed with assistance from free blacks and whites.

The song, “Drinking Gourd, provided fleeing slaves with a code to follow the Underground Railroad to freedom. The drinking gourd was a hollowed out gourd slaves used to drink water. In the song, the drinking gourd refers to the star formation of the Big Dipper which points to the North Star.

Ms. Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum explaining the significance of the bell.

Ms. Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum explaining the significance of the bell.

When a fleeing slave reached the Buxton Settlement in Chatham-Kent, they rang a bell. As Ms. Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum explained, upon hearing the bell, workers in the field quietly cheered with joy knowing someone else found freedom.

The original bell rings at a nearby church but a replica sits at the Buxton site and visitors are invited to ring it. I did and got a little teary-eyed thinking about the sacrifices and risks fugitive slaves made to ring that bell of freedom.

Mr. Bryan Prince, author of several books related to slavery, discusses some of the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site's History.

Mr. Bryan Prince, author of several books related to slavery, discusses some of the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site’s History.

Carpe Diem!
Initially called the Eglin Settlement, the Buxton Settlement was founded by Irishman Rev. William King. He lived in America’s Deep South during the mid-1830s, later sold his estate, emancipated his slaves in the late 1840s and moved with them to Canada, where he established the Eglin Settlement in 1849.

Sculpture in the barn at the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site.

Sculpture in the barn at the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site.

This was a self-sufficient settlement for fugitives and free blacks. At its peak, it was home to about 1,200 who escaped slavery in the U.S. The high quality education offered at the Buxton Mission School made the settlement unique. For instance, Latin and Greek were taught and the school was integrated because whites sought the same superior education being taught to their black neighbors. Many students went on to become educators, lawyers and doctors. Lord Althorp (future Earl of Spencer) and Frederick Douglass visited the flourishing settlement, impressed with the classical education.

Each house in the Buxton Settlement had to be built at least 24x18x12 feet with a front porch, picket fence and flower garden.

Each house in the Buxton Settlement had to be built at least 24x18x12 feet with a front porch, picket fence and flower garden.

Today, it’s believed the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum is the sole remaining Black Canadian settlement in existence dating back to the pre-Civil War era. The museum’s artifact collection is quite extensive and a home, barn and schoolhouse are available for touring.

If you have a chance to visit, and I hope you do, be sure to speak with curator Ms. Prince and her husband Bryan Prince, who has authored several books relating to the slavery. The Princes are descendants of slaves, grew up in Chatham-Kent, have conducted countless hours of research about the area and are just a joy to be around.

A look at some of the artifacts at the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site.

A look at some of the artifacts at the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site.

Black Mecca in Chatham-Kent, Ontario
Researching for the trip, I saw several references to the “colored man’s Paris” and now I understand why. Chatham-Kent was a Mecca for free and enslaved blacks because it was the center of black intellectual elite and a key location for abolitionist activity.

There’s only so much you can learn from a history book. I challenge you to follow the North Star to Chatham-Kent and discover what you didn’t learn about the abolitionist movement, Underground Railroad, and Civil War in high school.

Oh yeah, Retro Suites in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is THIS cool!

Oh yeah, Retro Suites in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is THIS cool!

Where to stay when visiting Chatham-Kent? I can’t wait to share with you my experience at the retro-fab Retro-Suites!

Buxton National Historic Site & Museum
21975 A. D. Shadd Road
North Buxton, ON N0P 1Y0
Tel: 519-352-4799
www.buxtonmuseum.com

Desk inside the school at the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site & Museum.

Desk inside the school at the Buxton Settlement National Historic Site & Museum.

Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum
177 King Street East
Chatham, ON N7M 3N1
Tel: 519-352-3565
www.ckblackhistoricalsociety.org

Period artifacts at Uncle Tom's Cabi Historic Site. Maybe they're used for sewing?

Period artifacts at Uncle Tom’s Cabi Historic Site. Maybe they’re used for sewing?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
29251 Uncle Tom’s Road
Dresden, ON N0P 1M0
Tel: 519-683-2978
www.heritagetrust.on.ca/Uncle-Tom-s-Cabin-Historic-Site/Home.aspx


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Author: Solo Travel Girl

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led Jennifer Huber, aka: Solo Travel Girl, to a career path in tourism. She has worked in the tourism industry for more than 20 years including 10 years with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley and Everglades National Park. She currently lives in Southwest Florida, and maintains this travel blog with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely.

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2 Comments

  1. I lived in this area for several years at a place called Highgate and I appreciate the excellent story you have written about an area and time in history that few people know.

  2. Thanks, Keith. I think I have a friend who lives in Highgate, I need to check. Small world! More people need to learn about this piece of history.

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