By Cheryl Brown

Canadian historian Gwendolyn Robinson says in her book “Seek the Truth” the story about Blacks in Chatham, Ontario, Canada that the influx of Blacks in the region began in the late 1700s. It continued until Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the enslavement of Blacks in America was legally over. Many of those who called the area home left to return in search of family and to rebuild the war torn south.

Forty-five educators traveling on The Footsteps to Freedom Study Tour V stopped at the W.I.S.H. Centre and listened to Chatham history, and viewed artifacts and binder after binder of primary source documents. Robinson and Spencer Alexander, officers in the Chatham/Kent Black Historical Society, told the group about the history of her ancestor Mary Ann Shadd, while Alexander played the role of James Charles (J.C.) Brown.

Mark Groen, Ph.D., whose area of study is American History, the Civil War and Slavery said, “this was a great collection of original information on people of the area and the things they’ve done. The back room housed a wonderful collection of primary source documents.” Groen works for the Riverside County Office of Education and is adapting information learned on the study tour in a variety of ways for teachers in the classroom.

Chatham is the home to many historic figures. Some of the notables were, Eliza Harris (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), James Gunsmith Jones (who John Brown pledged his gun to for $75), Dr. Martin Delany (who was a practicing physician in Chatham during the 1856 cholera outbreak), and Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
Shadd is best known as the first female in North America to publish a newspaper. Also an educator, Shadd was known as a promoter of full integration into society. As liberal as Canada was on the subject of Slavery, there was a law passed that kept schools segregated. She started the Provincial Freeman newspaper to encourage Blacks to seek equality through education and self-reliance. James Charles (J.C.) Brown, helped Josiah Henson establish the Wilberforce Institute, Canada’s first vocational school. He also lived for a time in the Dawn Settlement, before moving to Chatham.

The Heritage Room at the WISH Centre preserves the history of Black business and professional leaders. It tells the story of the achievements and struggles of those freedom seekers who self -emancipated long before it was legal.

In 1858 John Brown held a conference in the next building (First Baptist Church) that was a precursor to his raid at Harpers Ferry. “Brown was such a central character in our history. His raid precipitated the Civil War because the Southerners thought Northerners were abolitionist that could not be turned around. It was interesting to see the place where Brown planned the raid,” said Groen.

Chatham is a place that is generally overlooked. It was informative to see the scope of the Underground Railroad and exciting to learn of the activities of people in this community. Many of them went back and forth to America to carry on their activities, Groen continued.

Groen believes there are many lessons that can be learned to help our children. “This information is helpful in a variety of ways. Of course, in the study of history but I found that the metaphor of overcoming adversity was also important. It can help also in overcoming poverty, not speaking the language, cultural differences and disabilities. It also helps the teacher to help the student that learns by seeing something. When these children are presented the artifacts they light up. They respond in a different way. This gives us another tool to reach students,” said Groen.