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London Evening Advertiser

London, Ontario, Saturday, May 8, 1926 — TWENTY-TWO


Building on Thames Street Served Negroes Who Fled Slavery in United States, and Linked London With Events of the American Civil War.


This is the thirteenth of a series of articles on the Landmarks of London written for The Advertiser by E. J. Carty. The following article deals with the effect which the fight in the United States for the freedom of slaves had on the city and district. In it the story of the immortal John Brown is told.


In what is the oldest district of London, in a place which in the early years of the last century was thoughtlessly and unfairly referred to as Nigger Hollow, from the fact that many colored people had made their homes there, stands a house known as No. 275 Thames street, which is hallowed with memories. It was the original African Methodist Episcopal Church — made over into a dwelling when the colored congregation improved its social and financial position, and they abandoned the old edifice to occupy the then new and handsome structure known as the British Methodist Episcopal Bethemanuel Church on Grey street, between Colborne and Maitland streets.

For many years it had been accepted that the original African Methodist Fugitive Slave Chapel of London had been torn down, but the writer was able, with the assistance of some old-timers, including Mrs. Robert Mawhinney, whose husband was for many years janitor of the city hall, and who previous to that appointment had been a policeman in London. Her nephew, Mr. Bradley, also assisted in the identification.

To Mr. R. H. Dignan, city registrar, the writer is also indebted for the tracing of the property back to the deed from the crown. The records in Mr. Dignan's office show that William Clark, a carpenter, secured the original deed for a lot, 30 feet frontage by 110 feet deep, on Sept. 8, 1847, and that a month later, on Oct. 14, 1847, he "gave, granted, bargained, sold, released, confirmed and conveyed" this lot, comprising 3,300 square feet, for the sum of £ 22 10s, to the following, in trust for the African Methodist Episcopal Church: William Hamilton, Benjamin Harris, John Osburne, Henry James, Henry Logan, Thomas Wingate and George Winemiller.

The witnesses to the agreement of sale were William Patrick, Hunter Murray and W. C. W. Connor, a missionary of the A. M. E. Church. Those who witnessed the registration of the deed were Mr. Murray and David Hughes of St. Thomas.

Was A. M. E. Church.

It was incorporated in the agreement and the deed that the property was to be used for the purposes of the A. M. E. Church, and it was stipulated that the trustees should "erect or cause to be erected thereon a house or place of worship for the use of the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in the Province of Canada, according to the rules and discipline of the said church, which, from time to time may be adopted and agreed upon by the ministers and preachers of the said church, at their general conference in Canada, and in further trust and confidence that they shall at all times forever hereafter permit such ministers and preachers belonging to the said church. . . to preach and expound God's holy word therein."

Thus came into being the famous Fugitive Slave Chapel of London, where runaway slaves and a number of free Negroes who had taken up their residence in this city and the adjacent places, came to worship God and pray for the deliverance of their brothers, held in bondage in the southern United States.

The Property was sold by the church on May 15, 1869, to Jas. Seale, who afterward built Seale Terrace on York street. From the time of its inception in 1847 until it was sold 22 years later, the church in Canada had changed its name and had taken that of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1856, by which it is known today.

The Fugitive Slave Chapel carries one back to the days when the slavery issue was threatening to wreck the peace of the United States, 14 years before the actual outbreak of hostilities in 1861. Seventeen years previous to 1847, an effort had been made to establish a colony of former slaves near Lucan, at a place named Wilberforce in honor of the British statesman of that name who had done so much to free the negroes in the British possessions. The venture proved a failure, however, and the refugees had been scattered to the winds. Race prejudice, from which the slaves had fled from the south, had much to do with this failure, the Canada Company, fearing a colored community would prejudice its interests, refusing to sell any more land to negroes.

Underground Railway.

But many colored people came to London by means of the underground railway, a chain of houses and friendly places where the fugitives were fed and cared for on their way, from Cincinnati principally, to the north. This underground railway was also responsible for the colored population of Windsor, Chatham, St. Catharines and other points.

It was in this way that western Ontario became acquainted with John Brown, the hero of the ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, and of whom every child has sung:

"John Brown's body lies a moldering in the ground
But his soul goes marching on."

Though I have been unable to find any letters or references in various works regarding John Brown which would go to prove that he had at any time been a visitor to London, other than to pass through the city on his way to Chatham on the west and St. Catharines on the east, it is stated by the late Archie Bremmer, in his admired book, "Illustrated London," that Brown was a frequent visitor to this city and that he passed his time here drafting the constitution for his free slave republic, which was to be brought into being by an uprising of the blacks in the southern states. This constitution was adopted at a meeting of abolitionists and colored men held in Chatham on May 12, 1858. Mr. Bremmer claimed that 25 years ago relatives of John Brown resided in this city.

Two old residents of London, one of whom came here in 1842. and was a keen student of the slavery issue and the civil war that it engendered, told me years ago that John Brown, in the early summer of l858, was regularly in London and that he was regarded as a fanatic. One of these men also stated that in that year a mass meeting of colored folks was held in the little church on Thames street, only those who had the password being admitted. John Brown was the chief speaker, and it was stated afterward that the meeting had been called for the purpose of forming a company of negroes who would be drilled in London and would join their brothers from Windsor, Chatham and St. Catharines when the time was ripe for raid on the slave holders of the republic.

Link With Civil War.

Thus London is linked with the mighty chain of events which finally brought on the civil war in the United States, cost a million lives and the expenditure of four thousand million dollars. I remember talking over these matters with the late W. T. Edge, owner of the Edge Block, and a man to whom the American civil war was a thing of only yesterday. John Brown's exploits, he said, had so aroused the people of Canada that they were almost ready to go to war to help free the slaves. But once the fight started, public feeling was turned against the north by the Trent affair, and for a time the people of Canada were almost wholly for the south, irrespective of the slave issue. Later, the issue became a political matter, he said. "If two Canadians were arguing about the United States," he declared, "I could tell their politics by the sides they espoused. If they were Tories, they wanted the south to win; if they were Grits, they were for the north."

Mr. Edge also said that following the battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, the smoke of battle hung so heavily over London that the sun was obscured.

But to get back to John Brown. In several histories of his life, letters from him date St. Catharines, Ingersoll and Chatham, but there are none from London. Yet it seems he spent much time here. A man who told me he saw him on Dundas street claimed he was tall and clean shaven, long legged, long armed and determined looking. He was born of Puritan stock in Connecticut in 1800, and had lived for a time in New York and Ohio. He had tried everything from wool buying to surveying, had studied for the ministry, and had finally drifted in Kansas, where he took a prominent part in the fights that were staged by the free soldiers of Kansas and the pro-slavers of Missouri. When Kansas and Nebraska were admitted as states, the slavery issue was paramount, and finally Congress decided to allow the people of the new states to settle the issue. Thus the slavers tried to fill the territory up with friends of slavery and the abolitionists made an appeal for free soilers to settle in Kansas and drive slavery out. John Brown's sons went west and settled in Kansas, not so much to join in the slavery fight as to get some cheap land. But it was not long until they were embroiled in the argument, and they sent word to their father to send them some arms and ammunition. Instead of sending the goods he took them to his boys, and from that moment until Harper's Ferry events moved rapidly, with John Brown the leader of the Kansas abolitionists of the north, especially of Massachusetts, various Quaker societies assisting.

Killed in Cold Blood.

All histories go to show that John Brown believed himself a sort of reincarnation of Oliver Cromwell, and he was ruthless when he believed he was doing the work of the Lord. Thus he led a party of abolitionists which killed in cold blood five men who were said to have been mixed up in the murders of some free soilers in Kansas. At one time Brown had his six sons and his son-in-law in that state, fighting the slavers and seizing slaves in Missouri and sending them north by the underground railway to Canada.

Finally a price was put on his head, and he and his sons, as well as a number of the men who acted with him in his company of rangers, were compelled to flee. Like the fugitive slaves they had helped to free, they found a safe refuge and kind treatment in Canada, and John Brown always referred to his sojourns under the British flag as "shaking the lion's paw."

But Brown, the man who walked the streets of London, who spoke in the Fugitive Slaves' Chapel on Thames street, and who was familiar to many people in St. Catharines, Chatham and Windsor, used his time and protection here to draft a plan to upset the Government of the United States and establish a military training school for drilling of negroes in the use of arms. The constitution he placed before a convention of colored men and a few whites at Chatham, in 1858, left no doubt as to his intentions, and there were a number of colored men from London and district in the convention. The preamble of the provisional constitution said that "whereas slavery throughout its entire existence in the United states is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion, the only condition of which are a perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination; in utter disregard and violation of those eternal self-evident truths set forth in our declaration of independence.

"Therefore, we, the citizens of the United States and the oppressed people, who by a recent decision of the supreme Court of the United States are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following provisional constitution and ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives and liberties, and to govern our actions."

William Charles Monroe, a colored man, was elected provisional president and John Brown was placed in command of the military forces.

Planned Insurrection

It was the intention of Brown to make his raid on Harper's Ferry in 1858 to free the slaves there and start an insurrection that would bring help from the north and also cause the fugitive slaves of Canada to come to his assistance, but someone tipped the government at Washington of what was going on.

At once, Western Ontario was filled with spies and detectives, and Brown found that the abolitionist societies of the New England and other states had no faith in his scheme and wanted him to abandon it. He went back to Kansas and remained there until January of 1859, when he again appeared at Windsor with a party of slaves, which he had taken by force from their masters in Missouri and brought to freedom in Canada. He remained in Western Ontario until March and then left for the east, to prepare the final plans for his daring raid. On Oct. 16 following he descended on Harper's Ferry with only 22 men, and was later joined by about 20 more. He seized the public buildings, and in the fighting some white men and slaves were killed. Only a few slaves joined in the escapade. Before he was finally captured, Brown was badly wounded, and his two sons were killed. All save three or four members of the party were killed, and Brown and two others were hanged, the famous old abolitionist going to his death on Dec. 2, 1859, at Charlestown, Va.

When he was sentenced to be hanged he remarked casually that he was worth more for hanging than for anything else, and that his death would be the finishing blow to slavery in the United States. And he was right, for the civil war, which freed the slaves, broke out in April of 1861, and lasted until 1865.

In some quarters it is claimed that though the trustees of the A.M.E. Church secured the Thames street site in 1847, they were not able to erect a building until 1852, when the anti-slavery society had been formed here following a meeting held in the New Connexion Methodist Church, now the Clarence street citadel of the Salvation Army. But old-timers have claimed that the church was there previous to 1850.

One of the original pastors was "Rev." Benj. Miller, a runaway slave. But colored missionaries supplied the pulpit most of the time during the fifties. In the early sixties, an old city directory shows the pastor to have been Rev. J. Rawlings, and the sexton was Thos. Southgate. From 1830, when the Wilberforce colony, near Lucan, was established, until 1865, when Grant's sword had finally freed the slaves in the United States, the colored population of London was most unsteady, the negroes coming and going from place to place. Some of the fugitives who attended the old church on Thames street were men of importance. A. T. Jones had a drug store on the east side of Ridout street, just north of Dundas, and at this time this was the heart of the business district. He was rather wealthy and there were others who had made their way in the world. His name appears in the Mitchell's Gazetteer and Business Directory of 1861-62, but it had disappeared in John Cameron's city directory of 1864-65.

All the old ex-slaves that used to be pointed out to the rising generation of years ago, have passed away. One of these was "Big" Huckley, who for years earned a living by turning the handle of a press that printed a local newspaper. Then there was Rev. Geo. Barclay, who had been pastor of a local colored church and got into trouble with his congregation. They finally compelled him to get out and then he pamphleteered against his former parishioners, in verse, one of his attacks beginning:

"I had a dog and his name was Lion,
And every tooth was as hard as iron."

Isaac Adams, who resided on Ottaway avenue, near Wellington, was another former slave. Then there were James Worthington, who ran a barber shop on the market, and who lived at 446 Nelson street, in a fine house, with splendid grounds; Richard Smith, of 66 William street, an laborer; George Duncan, of Maitland street south, renowned as a physical marvel, and for years employed at Craig's lumber yard; his sons, Hodgin and Isaac, died some years ago; Henry Logan, of Pall Mall street; Mrs. Harper, of Wellington road south, whose son, Alex. Harper, was for years city auditor of Chicago; Henry Moorehead, who with A. B. and A. T. Jones, was mentioned in Drew's "North Side View of Slavery" (quoted by Prof. Fred Landon in a paper read before the London Historical Society some time ago), died about 10 years since and was well known here as professor Moorehead. The city directory of 1880 refers to him as "whitewasher and weather prophet." His death occurred at his home on Maitland street south. William Berry, who lived over Clark's Bridge, and was a successful auctioneer of London, and Hayden Waters, who resided on the Wharncliffe road north.

Still another former slave was George Peters, who lived for half a century on the river bank at the foot of Colborne street, and whose son George held the middleweight pugilistic championship of Canada and Michigan for a number of years. Another character of the period was Stevens, the fiddler, who had no fixed place of abode, and who wandered about the city with three or four dogs on strings, earning a living by playing the melodies of the sunny south, where he was born in slavery and had lived as a slave for nearly half a century before he ran away to Canada.

The B. M. E. Church on Grey street is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, the name of the church having been changed from the A. M. E. in 1856.