By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
On their arrival in Upper Canada, most of the enslaved Africans settled in Kent County, southwestern Ontario. Kent County is located on the north shore of Lake Erie, midway between the cities of London and Windsor. Chatham, its largest town, is situated on the River Thames. The three main settlements of Blacks in Kent County were: the Elgin Settlement Buxton; the Dawn settlement near Dresden and the settlement in Chatham. On a tour through Upper Canada in 1855, Benjamin Drew visited Chatham. In his book: A North-Side View of Slavery (1856), he states:
“At Chatham the fugitives are as thick as blackbirds in a cornfield. Here, indeed, more fully than anywhere else, the traveler realizes the extent of the American exodus. At every turn, he meets members of the African race, single or in groups; he sees them building and painting houses, working in mills, engaged in every handicraft employment; here he notices a street occupied by coloured shop-keepers and clerks; if he steps into the environs, he finds the Blacks in every quarter busy upon their gardens and farms.
“This is an indication that as early as 1855 the Blacks in Chatham not only enjoyed a certain degree of independence and economic security, but some of them were fairly high on the socio-economic ladder.”
The most successful settlement was the one in Buxton. This settlement was founded in 1850 by the Reverend William King, a Presbyterian clergyman from Louisiana. He named the village Buxton in honour of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, the famous British philanthropist and emancipator who was instrumental in getting the British parliament to pass the Emancipation Act of 1833. Rev. King established this settlement with his own manumitted slaves under the name of the Elgin Association, which was incorporated by an Act of Parliament on August 10, 1850, “for the social and moral improvement of the colored population of Canada”.
As a slave owner from the southern United States, King had a front row seat in observing the ability of the Africans and from their previous history he was satisfied “that when Africans are placed in favourable circumstances, they could support themselves as well as the emigrants from Europe, and would be capable of making the same progress in education”.
Contrary to popular beliefs at the time, King was convinced that Blacks were intellectually capable of reading and understanding the classics and solving complex mathematical and scientific problems like their forebears had done centuries before in Africa: “If the sons and daughters of former enslaved Africans were given the same educational and economic opportunities as the White children they would be able to do just as well.”
King had resolved to put his theory into practice when he established the Elgin settlement.
The high expectations King had of the innate ability, creative imagination and intellect of the Black students proved quite justified. When Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe visited the settlement in 1862, he commented: “Twenty years ago the Negroes of the Elgin Settlement had been slaves, who owned nothing, not even their own children. Now they own their houses and farms, and they have their wives and children about them. They are enfranchised citizens of a government which protects their rights.”
The Annual Report of the Directors of the Elgin Association (1852) supported Dr. Howe’s conclusion. It states: “Yet, within a few years there were few of them who did not own their own farms and who did not raise from the soil sufficient to support themselves and their families in comfort and reasonable luxury.
“Regarding the moral state of the escaped slaves in the Buxton Settlement, the Third Annual Report of the Elgin Association stated that ‘sobriety is so general that no case of drunkenness has occurred’. The report further states that only five cases had been brought before the court for adjudication and all these had been settled easily and amicably, and without expense to either party.”
King assured Howe that he found among the settlers a high degree of social purity and constancy in domestic relationships, all the more remarkable in view of the frequent violations to which the home life of the slaves had been subjected in former years.
From the earliest days of their settlement in Buxton, leaders of the Black community insisted that their children had the same right to an education as any other part of the population. They realized that education played a crucial role in their community’s efforts to be a productive part of Upper Canada and Ontario society. During their days of slavery in the United States practically no Africans were allowed to read or write. Those who were fortunate to obtain this ‘coveted privilege’ did so at their own peril.
In fact, in the early part of the 19th century, harsh laws were passed throughout the southern U.S. forbidding the instruction of Africans in reading, writing and arithmetic. In the southern U.S., if an African was caught reading a book, he could be lynched in public and those who taught him/her to read would be subjected to a stiff fine or a few months in jail.
The critical questions generated by this barbaric practice are: How did the enslaved Africans overcome the adversities invoked by racism and not allow its destructiveness to unduly influence their destiny? What factors enabled the enslaved to remain focused and motivated in a society that did not recognize their contributions?
Part five will explain the internal set of diverse qualities which has nurtured the enslaved spirit and projected the enslaved Africans beyond self-survival to pioneers of progress.