The Ontario black history landmark you never knew about

By Jalani Morgan, Special to TVO.org - Published on February 29, 2016
Buxton, a tiny town of roughly 200 people near Chatham, was once home to one of the province’s largest historic black settlements.

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My journey to the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum began last year, when my friend Ian posted a photo of himself in front of a white-painted church in the museum’s small rural town.  Located near Chatham, about 300 kilometres southwest of Toronto, this area was once a black settlement.

Ian’s mention of this historical site made me realize that something was missing from my current knowledge of black history in other parts of the province. It was deeply concerning. After living in Ontario for 32 years, and ample years of education in this province, I’d have expected to hear about the Elgin Settlement within the context of black Canadian history at least once before.

A green and brown wooden sign indicating the entrance to Buxton National Historic Site and Museum.
A frontal shot of the l-shaped cabin that houses Buxton Museum, with brown shingles and white doors.
Earlier this month I arranged a Sunday tour with Spencer Alexander, co-curator of the museum. After the three-hour drive from Toronto, he greeted me with an enthusiastic "What do you know about Buxton?" Alexander is a sixth-generation resident of the former settlement, and embodies a deep connection to his great-great-great-grandfather, George Hatter. In 1837 Hatter escaped slavery in West Virginia and eventually settled in this town.

Spence Alexander stands in front of a glass case that houses artifacts from the historic settlement.
Alexander began our tour with a short video outlining the town’s history and link to the Underground Railroad. Rev. William King was a minister in Louisiana who inherited 15 enslaved Africans after the death of his father-in-law. In 1849, the Presbyterian Church sent King to Canada as a missionary. Being an abolitionist, he brought the slaves with him, as he knew that leaving them behind would result in them being re-enslaved. King, along with these former slaves, formed the foundation of this North Buxton settlement, where farming was the main industry.

A single ball-shaped brass bell hangs from a metal hook.

As a stark reminder of those who were less fortunate in their quest, Alexander presented me with items used by slave owners to deter and punish those who tried to escape. The shackles and metal devices were bone-chilling, to say the least.

This bell, for example, was not the kind that rang celebratory notes, but instead projected sounds of inhumane cruelty. It is part of a much larger contraption that consists of five separate 15-centimetre-long metal rods, each with its own bell attached, protruding upwards from a solid metal collar worn around the neck. Captured slaves were forced to carry this weight on their shoulders for extended periods of time.

The tour eventually arrived at less disheartening content, with Alexander thumbing through the rich documented history stored within the museum’s cabin walls.  Records dating back to the 1830s told the stories of births, deaths and where families resided; included letters to and from various family members; recounted visitors to the settlement grounds; and archived marriage certificates and family trees, one of which included Alexander’s own blood line. By the 1860s, close to 2,000 people lived in the Elgin Settlement.
 
Alexander Spence looks through a large book of old maps in a room full of filing cabinets.

Alexander spent some time looking for one document in particular: a letter written by Frederick Douglass, a former slave-turned-U.S. national leader for the abolitionist movement. During his visit to the Elgin Settlement, he left a letter describing his experiences as a slave in Maryland. The tour also shed light on Abraham Doras Shadd, who devoted much of his life to the abolitionist movement and was the first black man to be elected to political office in Canada.  His efforts towards radical change continued with his descendants; his daughter Mary Shadd became the first black female publisher in Canada. A framed page from The Provincial Freeman hung proudly on the walls.
A small chapel with white shingles and bright blue trimmings in the middle of a field.

Alexander then led me to a small shingled church converted to a school, which served predominantly black students from the settlement. Here, children would take lessons in math and reading, a few of which Alexander demonstrated. One question was a longwinded math riddle; the other, also requiring one’s undivided attention, was a listening and comprehension test.
 

A nineteenth century classroom with wooden stove in the middle and rows of desks.

The end was perhaps the most compelling: the burial ground of Buxton’s first inhabitants, 15 freed slaves who birthed the descendants of the black community established here. I felt a strong urge to capture this photo to grant their stories the dignity they fought for all their lives. There is so much more about the Elgin Settlement to learn about, and I have every intention of visiting again.
 

A field on an overcast/cloudy day with 15 tombstones, in varying shapes and sizes, lined up in a horizontal row.

Photographs by Jalani Morgan. 

Jalani Morgan is a photographer based in Toronto.

This is part of a series of reflections on Black History Month in Ontario. Twice a week for the month of February, TVO.org features essays on how black history and black lives today intersect with education, pop culture, social policy and more.

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