London’s Black Community in the Fugitive Slave Era
“There are coloured people employed in this city in almost all the mechanic arts; also in grocery and provision stores, etc. many are succeeding well, are buying houses, speculating in lands, and some are living on the interest of their money.” Most of the Black immigrants coming to Canada in the years before the Civil War, settled in the larger towns and cities.
Backstory and Context
In London the early Black community, which first appeared in the 1830s, could be found in the vicinity of Horton and Thames streets. Little is known about this early community, though London’s first two Town Criers, George Washington Brown and Don Dean, were both Black Freeman. (The Town Crier was a municipal office whose occupant announced official proclamations and by-laws in public places such as the market.)
For his book, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, Drew interviewed 16 Black Londoners, several of whom were long-time residents. Benjamin Miller, who escaped from St. Louis, learned the boot and shoe-making trade while a slave. After arriving in London in 1836, he served as a pastor in the Methodist church and raised a family of eight. Alfred Jones, an herbalist who eventually ran a successful drug store on Ridout Street, escaped slavery in Kentucky and came to London in 1833, where he acquired several properties.
London’s 19th century fugitive slave and free Black population, which peaked at about 400 around 1860, was fairly small compared to those in other Ontario communities, likely because it was so distant from the border crossings. Nonetheless, the black community in London was connected to a larger network of black abolitionists and other settlements through southwestern Ontario. Among the institutional foundations of London’s lack community was the successful and innovative racially integrated school, established with the cooperation of black leaders and the Anglican Church of London working through the Colonial Church and School Society. The school operated from the London barracks, between 1854 and 1859.