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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.