A large community of escaped slaves which arrived in London through the Underground Railroad was established in the middle of the 19th century, building the foundation for what is now SoHo. One structure in particular remains a focal point of this history, the Fugitive Slave Chapel. The Chapel was built by a local African Methodist congregation in 1848 on the grounds of 275 Thames Street, near the south side of the Thames River. This area was home to a growing community of refugee slaves who escaped slavery in the early 19th century through the Underground Railroad.
Local community organization Hear, Here has several stories about the Fugitive Slave Chapel and the experience of escaped Black slaves living in Canada. Looking at these stories from the past help the London community to reflect on contemporary experiences of racism which still happen to Black Canadians over two centuries later.
This week, follow along as we share four amazing stories about London’s Black History!
These first two stories come from The Refugee: the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, written by white abolitionist Benjamin Drew in 1856. Drew travelled to Ontario from the United States to interview refugee slaves living in Canada, including notable figures from the Underground Railroad like Harriet Tubman.
In order to get a sense of this experience, our first story comes from Henry Morehead, a slave refugee who recounts his escape from slavery through the underground railroad.
“I came from Louisville, Kentucky, where I was born and bred a slave. The fugitives who come to this country for freedom from bondage, have been kept down in such a manner, that these privileges granted to them seem somewhat strange, and they have to take some time to consider whether they shall send their children to school with the white children or not. This free school is something so unusual to them that they can’t realize it, until they become naturalized to the country. The time is now, when the colored men begin to see that it is the want of education which has kept them in bondage so long.
My owners used to object to my going to school, saying that I could learn rascality enough without it–that “niggers” going to school would teach them rascality. I always felt injured when a slave and when free, at the use of that word. This dampened my feelings for getting learning, somewhat, but I went to a night school, at my own expense of course, to learn to spell and read. My owners found it out, and set policeman to break the school up. This put an end to my schooling–that was all the schooling I ever had. I have looked at it and have come to the conclusion, that it is best that colored people should teach their children to read and to write, in order that they may know the ways of the world.
I left slavery a little more than a year ago. I brought my wife and three children with me, and had not enough to bring us through. My owners did not know that we were coming. I left because they were about selling my wife and children to the South. I would rather have followed them to the grave, than to the Ohio River to see them go down. I knew it was death or victory–so I took them and started for Canada. I was pursued,–my owners watched for me in a free State, but, to their sad disappointment, I took another road. A hundred miles further on, I saw my advertisements again offering $500 for me and my family. I concluded that as money would do almost anything, I ought to take better care,–and I took the underground railroad. I was longer on the road than I should have been without my burden: one child was nine months old, one two years old, and one four. The weather was cold and my feet were frostbitten, as I gave my wife my socks to pull on over her shoes. With all the sufferings of the frost and the fatigues of travel, it was not so bad as the effects of slavery.
I am making out very well here–I have not been in the country long enough to accumulate any wealth, but I am getting along as well as the general run of people. It stands to reason, that a man must be doing something to pay a rent of five dollars a month, and support a family of four besides himself, as provisions are, and have been. To do this does not look much like starving”.
Another refugee slave who settled in SoHo, John D. Moore, recounts his experience as a Black man living in both the USA and Canada. Despite what many people may think, many Black men and women who escaped slavery still faced extreme violence and persecution because of their race:
I lived in Pennsylvania and New Jersey some twenty years. I suffered a great deal there solely on account of my color. Many a time, when I had been travelling, and would come to a tavern tired and hungry, I would be told, “We have no accommodations for men of your color,” and I would have to go on. Perhaps I might get a luncheon at a private house,–or at some place kept by a foreigner, who needed the colored man’s money.
I have suffered a great many other ways on account of my color. Several times I wanted to go into business there, but was dissuaded by my white friends, who said I would be mobbed or burned out. I was discouraged in so many ways, that I came to Canada, to see if I could find a place where a colored man could have some privilege. I find it the reverse here from what it was in the States. There is a prejudice here among the low class of people, but they have not got the power to carry it out here that they have in the States. The law here is stronger than the mob–it is not so there. If a man insults me here, he is glad to get out of the way for fear of the law; it was not so in the States where I lived. A ruffian there may insult or throw stones at a colored man, and he must get out of the way–I found no law on my side.
I can’t complain–I am doing well here, and I am satisfied with Canada. I have lived here eighteen months.
Turning to contemporary stories about the Fugitive Slave Chapel, a place both Moore, Morehead, and countless others would have attended, you will learn a bit more about the Chapel’s current role in the London community.
Our first story comes from Delta McNeish, the former pastor at Beth-Emmanuel Church on Grey Street, which is located directly beside the Fugitive Slave Chapel’s new home since being moved from the 275 Thames Street lot in 2014 to save the building from demolition. The building is in fact the original structure, making it nearly 170 years old! McNeish was once a local advocate for the Chapel restoration project but has since left Beth-Emmanuel. Unfortunately, progress to restore the Chapel has halted all together, and the building currently sits empty due to lack of funds and other delays. The interview conducted with McNeish took place prior to these latest updates.
Here is Delta McNeish on the chapel’s role in helping to heal the SoHo community:
“I personally want to see the chapel as a community connection. I think for me that’s one of the bigger pieces because this is… This part of London is kind of, uhm… It’s been tainted in so many ways with drugs, alcohol, and a lot of abuse. I can personally see where the chapel could be a, for the lack of a better term, like an injection of Godly B-12, in the arm of the community. Yeah, it’s just to kind of make, you know, just change the complexion of the community by building community and substantiate educational processes that will help the community to come together.
It matters to me from different perspectives. From the spiritual perspective, I understand where these people went through a lot of pain and God was very much there to help them. That means a lot to me. Actually when I stood for the first time on the grounds at 275 Thames street, I felt the blood, I felt the cries, I heard the cries, I sensed them. I know that there is more to this than meets the eye and like my husband said that if the walls could talk, we’d all be crying, I think. For sure. So, it means a lot to me from that perspective.
It also means a lot to me from the perspective of building that community of people that cares about the same thing. Where we develop respect and honour for one another.
There’s a final piece, the part that says a lot of Blacks are not involved with the slave chapel. That’s my… my challenge, because I think, I’m finding out why they’re not involved. They are not involved because of shame. And so I’ve tried to pull this apart to understand how our forefathers could build the United States of America on their blood, and their ancestors relinquish that to shame. That to me is one of the bigger pieces. And so for us as a community, I think we need to unite our hearts together to cause people–both Blacks and whites together to show that there’s no real shame here if we unite together. If we leave it as it is, as just an old building that we want to restore–there will be shame. But if we use it to unite the hearts of people I say glory to God”.
Another story of the Fugitive Slave Chapel comes from Joan Sam, a local community member who advocates for racial equity and the importance of oral storytelling. Sam describes the chapel’s importance to the history of London and how it can be brought back to life through community engagement:
“I am Joan Sam. I am a mother, a wife.
I am not actually inside the Chapel, but I am outside. The church itself, now moved to Grey Street, was actually built in 1847 for a safe haven for the fugitive slaves and also to help settle all the Black community and the refugees who lived in that area.
I had a vision. Instead of just tell the story of slavery, why don’t I just turn this in a very positive way, where everybody can be involved. The church is the history of London. It belongs to everyone of us. It’s not me being Black, it’s not me being Asian or you being white or whatever, it’s London history. So I decided to start reaching out to the community. I have this picture of where we can all come together and tell the story in a beautiful way if you write a song, a poem, a hymn, draw the chair, paint the chair, whatever you feel like doing. I hope the project can be on display just to touch the lives of the community in a positive way and not just look at the chapel as this raggedy, broken frame. I want them to see community at work. That’s the beauty, that’s what Canada is”.
The future of the Fugitive Slave Chapel is still undecided and the historic landmark still sits boarded up on Grey Street.
If you are looking for more Hear, Here stories, check out our website HERE! If you want to visit these sites in person, download the Driftscape App to access exclusive walking tours, audio recordings, and photographs!