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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum
177 King Street East
Chatham, ON N7M 3N1
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
29251 Uncle Tom’s Road
Dresden, ON N0P 1M0
- Dining Review: Chilled Cork Restaurant & Lounge in Chatham-Kent, Ontario
- Underground Railroad Chatham-Kent
- Visit Buxton Settlement of Descendants of Freed Slaves
- Preserving the Legacy of Black Mecca
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to support the blog, my traveling habit and my special-needs dog.