There is no London neighbourhood more tied to the city’s black community than Soho. It’s fitting to recall that part of our community’s history in February, which is officially designated as Black History Month.
Editor’s Note: This article is originally published in 2010 and has been retained for archival purposes.
Many of London’s first black residents arrived in the Forest City long before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Those black immigrants, who arrived in the 1830s, settled in the vicinity of Thames and Horton Streets. While little factual information survives about those early families, it is known that London’s first two town criers, George Washington Brown and Don Kean, were both black freemen. (Town criers used to announce official proclamations and bylaws in places like the market and downtown street corners).
Two other early black settlers were Benjamin Miller, who escaped from St. Louis, Missouri and learned the boot and shoe-making trade to earn his living and Alfred Jones, an herbalist, who opened a drugstore on Ridout Street.
By 1860, there were about 400 free Blacks and escaped slaves living in London. Many settled along the river, including at the end of Colborne Street. This was not as large a population as other cities could claim, but London was quite a distance from the border crossings where fugitive slaves escaped into Canada.
Many of the newcomers were members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Sometime after 1848, these worshippers built a small frame church on Thames Street, just west of Ridout. That church survives today as a private residence. The house was given a historical plaque some years ago, but that plaque disappeared when the home changed ownership. Efforts are now being made to restore the plaque to its original location.
Within a few years, the AME congregations in Ontario re-organized and gave their churches a new name – British Methodist Episcopal (BME). This indicated that they wanted to honor their new home in British North America. It is believed that the fiery American abolitionist, John Brown, may have spoken in the Thames Street church in 1858 when he toured the area to gain support for the raid he planned on Harper’s Ferry. That ill-fated raid would cost Brown his life and led to the song, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave..”
By 1863, there were 75 people worshipping in the frame church, with a Sunday school attended by 35 children. As members of the community prospered, they gradually relocated to an area near the intersection of Grey and Maitland Streets. About 1870, the congregation built a new church in what we now call Soho – Beth Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church, at 430 Grey Street. This handsome yellow brick structure, with the tall wooden stairs at the front of the church, became the centre of the black community’s social life. During the 1940s and 1950s, the church was noted for its mouthwatering Southern style fowl suppers, traditionally held in November. A serious fire damaged the church in 1991, but the congregation rallied and repaired the structure. Services are still held at the church every Sunday.
By the 1880s, black families in London tended to settle further to the east of Soho, in the Hamilton Road area. But they continued to attend services at the BME church.
One notable member of the church was actor Richard Berry Harrison (1864-1935), the son of Thomas Harrison and Isabella Benton, both former slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. The family lived here until 1880 when they moved to Detroit. There, Harrison trained as an elocutionist and his stage work took him around Canada and the United States. He would present dramatic monologues and also read poetry and literary offerings; he also taught drama and public speaking at several colleges. Harrison gave up teaching to take the role that would make him an internationally known celebrity. He was chosen to play “De Lawd” in a Broadway play called Green Pastures. Harrison continued to perform the role of God in this play for the last five years of his life, receiving the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, presented every year for outstanding achievement by a Black
American. When Green Pastures was brought to the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario in 1934, Richard Harrison received an official welcome back to his old hometown and was given the freedom of the city.
Harrison is likely the only Soho resident whose portrait once graced the cover of TIME magazine. His place in theatrical history is honored today in our neighborhood with the namesake Richard B. Harrison Park and a historical plaque, located just west of the Wellington Street Bridge at the south branch of the Thames River. This plaque was unveiled due to the efforts of late London historian, Chris Doty.