Enslaved Black people began to arrive in what is now Canada in the late 1600s. In 1793, legislation to restrict or end slavery had been introduced in Upper Canada, now known as Ontario. It became illegal to buy or sell human beings anywhere in the British Empire in 1807, including what is now Canada. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed by British Parliament in 1833, abolished slavery across the British Empire, although it did not take effect until the following year.
In the United States in the mid-1800s, the Northern and Southern states did not agree about the practice of slavery. In 1850, the federal government passed a series of laws that included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, enacted to appease Southern slaveholders. The law required that all persons escaping slavery be returned to their enslaver. It also established severe penalties for law enforcement officials who did not cooperate with arrest, retention, and return of Freedom Seekers to the South.
One significant outcome of the Fugitive Slave Act was that Canada became a primary destination for Freedom Seekers and free Black people who worried they would be targeted by false claims of ownership. Although Black settlements had already begun to develop across Chatham-Kent during the 1840s and 50s in areas such as Dresden, Buxton, and Chatham, the Black population of Canada increased significantly as racialized men, women, and children came here seeking the right to own land and participate in civic life. Most importantly they came in pursuit of freedom. Black publishers of the time, including Mary Ann Shadd Cary, even created publications encouraging immigration to Canada.
It is easy to be proud of the success of Black individuals here in Chatham-Kent and our history as a refuge for Freedom Seekers. However, pride is not the intention of this exhibition. Instead, the struggles and challenges of racism experienced in Chatham-Kent is explored. As Chatham-Kent continued to grow through the 1900s, racism perpetrated by citizens and, more importantly, advocacy by the Black community became regionally and provincially significant.
Racism is still experienced today. It is all our responsibility to continue the fight of the trailblazers highlighted in this exhibition.
In the words of the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing:
“Let us march on till victory is won…”
This exhibition was produced by the Chatham-Kent Museum in partnership with the following organizations:
Original artwork in this exhibition was created by Mariah Alexander.
The Chatham-Kent Museum gratefully acknowledges these contributions.