Badass Black History in Chatham-Kent

It’s black history month, making this the perfect time to talk about the epic historical attractions in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

A Coloured Man’s Paris

Chatham was a terminus of the Underground Railroad and became known as “A Coloured Man’s Paris” and “Black Mecca.” African-Americans flocked here not only to escape to freedom, but also for the tremendous educational opportunities available. Blacks could receive a high-quality, classical education and many who studied there went on to prominent careers in medicine, law, politics, and other esteemed fields in both Canada and the United States. This also fostered a thriving community that played a role in the campaign to abolish slavery.

Chatham-Kent is only a few hours’ drive from both Toronto and Detroit/Windsor, putting it within easy reach for hundreds of thousands of travellers.

Black Mecca Museum

Chatham Kent Black history museum Blair Newby
Blair Newby, Executive Director of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society

The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society has created a small museum to showcase the area’s black heritage and it is well worth a visit to help fit all of the pieces together and put everything into context. In addition to profiling prominent figures such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the museum has also dramatized the slave narratives of several ordinary people who came to Chatham, which I found especially fascinating.

Chatham Kent Black history museum slave narrative
Push the button to hear this woman’s slave narrative

While you’re in Chatham town centre, be sure to stop by the BME Freedom Park which has lots of historical markers and is situated on the site where the first BME Church in Canada once stood.

 Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site

Bust of Josiah Henson at Uncle Tom's Cabin
Bust of Josiah Henson at Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Originally known as The Dawn Settlement, this historic site was renamed Uncle Tom’s Cabin after former slave Rev. Josiah Henson who helped establish the settlement and whose memoirs served as inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel of the same name. The interpretive centre at Uncle Tom’s Cabin has exhibits about the history of the site and demonstrating different ways that slaves escaped to freedom and our tour started with an engaging talk by Curator Steven Cook.

Uncle Toms Cabin Steven Cook
Curator Steven Cook talks about slaves escaping to freedom in shipping crates

The rest of the exhibits are outdoors, ripe for exploring. An interesting factoid is that the site would have qualified for designation as a National Historic Site but for the fact that the cabin had been moved from its original location on a different part of the property. The two houses on the settlement contain period furnishings and household goods that show what life was like at that time.

Uncle Toms Cabin Dresden Ontario
Uncle Tom’s Cabin — ripe for exploring

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

The Elgin Settlement was established in 1849 and gave black settlers the opportunity to buy 50-acre farms on an instalment plan. The community had all of the key infrastructure a pioneer needed, including a blacksmith shop, a mill, a cobbler’s workshop, churches, and the all-important school.

Buxton settlement cabin
Cabin from the original Elgin Settlement at North Buxton

Today most of the buildings are gone from the site, but the school and a typical cabin remain, and a new museum was constructed on the property to tell the story of life at that time. The schoolhouse was restored in 2002 and is a great place to visit and learn about the difference educational opportunities made to black settlers and former slaves. The school taught both children and adults, and of the first graduating class of six men, one became a politician, two became lawyers, and three went on to become doctors.

Buxton settlement spelling lesson
Typical spelling lesson at the Elgin Settlement. For the record, “panegyrics” has an E in it.

The one-room schoolhouse provided pupils a classical education, including lessons in logic, philosophy, and rhetoric. Curator Shannon Prince gave us a taste of what that was like by putting us through a spelling drill in which she dictated a passage for us to write down in chalk on our slates. I flunked because I spelled “panegyrics” wrong.

In front of the Buxton Museum stands a historic bell. It was rung every time a new person reached the settlement and attained their freedom. Nowadays visitors are encouraged to ring the bell and heed the words of Josiah Henson “I will use my freedom well.”

Buxton settlement freedom bell
Museum curator Shannon Prince with the historic bell at the Buxton Historic site and Museum

 Disclosure and acknowledgements: On this trip I was a guest of Ontario Tourism. Many thanks to Joy Sim and her colleagues in Chatham-Kent for being terrific hosts.

16 Comments

    1. Thanks DL! It was a cool trip. So many amazing stories of lives lived and struggles overcome. It was tempting to tell many of them in the post but I want people to visit and discover some of the history for themselves. It really makes me grateful for the civil rights that we have today.

    2. Oh, it’s also mega snarftastic. There were at least 10 historical markers at the Buxton Settlement alone. Your giraffe would have a field day.

  1. What a blessing to read this today! One day I hope to go make there. My ancestral lineage is of a different history when slaves were brought from the South here to Nova Scotia. The only province in all of Canada that allowed legalized slavery. It is important for these stories to be shared and remembered.
    The Mi’kmaq helped my African ancestors to survive and that is how I came to be.
    Grandmother Selina
    EarthHealer Medicine Woman
    Mi’kmaq Metis

    1. I know, right?!? Who does that? 😉

      Yes, there are lots of very moving artifacts and stories in Chatham-Kent. Kudos to the community for taking an active interest in preserving their heritage. What impressed me most was that the curators at all of the sites we visited were local people who can trace their roots back through history to the people and events profiled at their attractions. Not only do they know the history inside and out, there’s a living connection to the community that cannot be duplicated.

  2. Fascinating place and that bell…”I will use my freedom well”, pretty inspiring. Oh, the things we take for granted. Thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely be stopping by if I’m ever in the area.

  3. Visiting Chatham-Kent was a real eye opening experience. There’s a lot of history in Canada that I didn’t realize happened until our trip there.

    Oh and don’t feel too bad. I completely messed up on that spelling test too.

    1. Alouise, it was great to hang out with you on the trip to Chatham-Kent. I learned so much. I’d always thought of the Underground Railroad in connection with the Niagara region. I had no idea there was so much history out that way. And I didn’t even talk about the War of 1812 in this post!

  4. What a wonderful place to visit…maybe one day I’ll get to see it. I’d like to “trail” the Underground Railroad some day…it sounds like it would be a fascinating road trip.

    1. You would love it, Linda. There’s history everywhere and loads of snarfs. It would make a terrific road trip, and there are actually road signs marking the way of the Underground Railroad. Chatham is also known for classic cars and has an epic retro-themed hotel that I would love to stay in sometime.

  5. Nice piece! I’m planning on visiting the Chatham-Kent museum in the near future. I found out that I have ancestors who moved to the Elgin Settlement in the 1850s. They were not slaves, but free black people from Pennsylvania. Quite a few of free black people also moved to the Chatham-Kent area and especially in the 1850s due to the threat of them being kidnapped into slavery here in the US.

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