The Early Black Community in Hamilton

On Friday, February 15, 2008, at 10 a.m., the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a provincial plaque at the Scottish Rite Club in Hamilton, Ontario to commemorate The Early Black Community in Hamilton.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    During the early 1800s, as African Americans sought freedom from slavery and oppression in the United States, Hamilton became an important terminus on the Underground Railroad. By the 1830s, two distinct enclaves of Black settlement had developed, “Little Africa,” located on Hamilton Mountain in the area of Concession and Upper Wentworth streets, and another neighbourhood around St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church (1835) on Cathcart Street. Members of the early Black community farmed and worked in a variety of trades and professions. Captain William Allen led the African Company during the Rebellion of 1837 in defence of the Crown and of Black freedom. In pursuit of social equality, Paola Brown led the fight against segregated schooling for Black children during the mid-1800s and set a standard for decades to come. Many others contributed significantly to their city and paved the way for future Black settlement and achievement.


    Au début des années 1800, comme les Afro-Américains cherchaient à s’affranchir de l’esclavage et de l’oppression dont ils étaient victimes aux États-Unis, Hamilton devint une importante destination du chemin de fer clandestin. Dans les années 1830, on trouvait dans la ville deux établissements noirs distincts, un premier établissement appelé la « Petite Afrique », situé sur la montagne Hamilton, près des rues Concession et Upper Wentworth, et un second établissement regroupé autour de l’Église épiscopale méthodiste africaine Saint Paul (1835), rue Cathcart. Les membres de la première communauté noire de la ville s’adonnaient à l’agriculture et exerçaient divers métiers et professions. Le capitaine William Allen dirigea la compagnie africaine Durant la Rébellion de 1837 pour défendre la Couronne ainsi que la liberté des Noirs. Luttant pour l’égalité sociale, Paola Brown mena le mouvement contre la ségrégation scolaire imposée aux enfants noirs au milieu du 19e siècle, mouvement qui aboutit à l’établissement d’une norme en matière d’éducation qui fut en vigueur pendant des décennies. De nombreux autres Noirs ont contribué de façon notable à l’essor de leur ville et ont ouvert la voie à de nouveaux établissements et accomplissements noirs.

Historical background

People of African descent - including enslaved people - have lived in the Hamilton area for at least 200 years.1 Slavery existed in New France and continued to be practised after the defeat of the French in 1760. By the 1790s, enslaved Africans were living in the Windsor-Detroit border region, Niagara, York (Toronto) and along the St. Lawrence River (Kingston and vicinity). Many accompanied their United Empire Loyalist owners fleeing after the American Revolution (1775-83). Some Blacks fought with the British forces and had therefore won their freedom before they came to the province.

Following the passage in Upper Canada of the 1793 Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves, and to limit the term of contracts for servitude within this Province, African-Americans began to escape slavery and oppression in the United States. The Act prevented the introduction of new slaves into the province and freed children born to stave mothers at the age of 25 and their children's children at birth.2 Located 64 km from the American border, Hamilton emerged as an important terminus on the Underground Railroad. As early as the first decades of the 19th century, numerous African-Americans migrated to the area called the "Head of the Lake" (now the Hamilton area) in search of freedom and opportunity. While many stayed only briefly in the expanding port town, others settled and developed a community.

One of the earliest Black settlements in Hamilton was located on Hamilton Mountain. At this site, the nucleus of which was Concession and Upper Wentworth streets, landholding families provided lots by donation or sale to African-Canadians who had been squatting there as early as the 1820s and 1830s. As Black families began the task of cultivating the rough terrain, the location came to be known locally as "Little Africa." 3

In the lower part of town, a second neighbourhood developed around Cathcart Street. This was the location of St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1835 as a log structure on Cathcart and later moving to Rebecca Street. Known today as Stewart Memorial Church and situated on John Street North, this church became the centre of civic and religious life for many of Hamilton's Black residents. Another church, the Coloured Baptist Church, was located on MacNab Street North. It was founded in the late 1830s by Reverend Washington Christian, the fiery leader of Black Baptists in Ontario.4

The Black community of 19th-century Hamilton consisted of men and women who farmed, owned businesses and worked as shoemakers, plasterers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, seamstresses, teachers and cooks. According to one historian, there were approximately 83 Black families living in Hamilton in 1861, a quarter of whom owned their own property.5 A reassessment, however, of the Black population – based on the 1861 census – counted 616 people living in Barton Township, including 476 in the five wards of Hamilton City proper.6 A few of the Blacks living in Hamilton were wealthy. Thomas Morton, for example, owned a cab company with two carriages and four horses, one of which he drove himself.7 It was thought that his capital worth was about $15,000.8 The majority of Hamilton's Black citizens, however, survived on modest incomes.

Once the British Parliament officially abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1834, African-Hamiltonians organized an annual Emancipation Day event to celebrate the abolition of slavery. This attracted people from St. Catharines, Niagara, Brantford, Ancaster, Toronto and points in between. For many years, MPP Isaac Buchanan allowed his homestead Auchmar in Clairmont Park on Hamilton Mountain to be used for the celebrations.9 Apart from Emancipation Day, the social life of 19th-century Black Hamilton consisted of participation in religious activities, dances, musical groups and involvement in the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. Mount Olive Lodge #1 in Hamilton was the first order established in 1851 in Ontario and in the years following, the Women's Order of the Eastern Star, Esther Chapter #3, was established there as well.10 A handful of lecturers and spokespersons also entertained and educated the Black community. Nearing the end of the century, "Professor" Charles Augustus Johnson, for example, published a monthly journal called the British Lion. In it were articles about a variety of topics; Johnson also frequently lectured publicly on scientific issues.11

Many of Hamilton's Black men also participated in active military service. Deeply loyal to the British government that granted them freedom, during the Rebellion of 1837, 18 of Hamilton's local Black men signed a "Loyal statement of people of colour ..." dated December 18, 1837, saying that it was the "duty of every Loyal man at the present crisis to come forward in support of the Government of our Most Gracious Queen."12 They formed a Black company under "Captain" William Allen, one of several companies in the province that helped suppress the Rebellion of 1837.13 Allen was one of two Black military leaders known to command a Black military unit in Canada during these early years, the other being Reverend Josiah Henson from Dresden, Ontario.14

Resistance to discrimination and racism and pleas for social equality for African-Canadians were important causes championed by Black community action in Hamilton throughout the 19th century. In 1837, Paola Brown – Hamilton’s bellman and town crier – led a protest against the arrest and imprisonment of Jesse Happy, a fugitive slave from Kentucky for whom American authorities were seeking extradition on the grounds he had stolen his master's horse to make his escape.15 Fortunately, Happy was allowed to remain in Canada.

One of the most pressing issues in the 19th century was that public schools in many parts of the province refused to admit African-Canadian children. In 1843, Paola Brown and the "Coloured People of Hamilton" wrote a letter to the Governor General, Sir Charles Metcalfe, stating that while "we have paid the taxes," there are "no steps taken to change this manner of [discriminatory] treatment" in the school system, the petition had a significant impact. Governor General Metcalfe requested that the Superintendent of Education, Reverend Robert Murray, look into the matter. Murray wrote to the president of the Board of Police of Hamilton, George S. Tiffany, who advised that there was a "strong prejudice" against the Black children on the part of white parents. However, he also noted that "whatever may be the state of feeling at present with respect to the admission of the coloured children," the Board of Police was unanimous that "it would not be advisable to yield to it, but that the law ought to be enforced without distinction of colour." Thereafter, Black children were allowed to attend Hamilton public schools.16

In 1866, members of Hamilton's Black community condemned the use of minstrelsy images in local advertisements.17 The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was originally an American form of entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing and music. The shows were performed by white people in blackface makeup or, especially after the American Civil War, by Black performers in blackface. Minstrel shows portrayed and lampooned Blacks in disrespectful and often disparaging ways. As Black people began to achieve legal and social victories against racism and to successfully assert political power, minstrelsy lost popularity.

The origins of the Black community in Hamilton grew out of the migration and collective experience of escaped slaves and free African-Americans from the United States. The enslaved often came via the Underground Railroad. The struggles, efforts and achievements – especially those involving community action and solidarity among early Black Hamiltonians – created a strong foundation on which to welcome future Black immigrants to the City of Hamilton.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Martin Weger, graduate student at the Department of History, York University, in preparing this paper. The Trust further acknowledges the research of Adrienne Shadd.

This provincial plaque was developed with funding support from the Government of Ontario as well as TD Bank Financial Group.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2008

1 Richard Butler, Saturday Musings: A Series of Weekly Articles from the Spectator, dealing with the early history of the City of Hamilton, vol. 1, Special Collections, Hamilton Public Library. According to Butler, who wrote a column for the Hamilton Spectator at the turn of the 20th century, the earliest Blacks in the area were enslaved. He noted that an enslaved man named Jackson was a servant in the home of Colonel Henry Beasley. More research, however, is required to determine definitively whether enslaved people lived in the Hamilton area.

2 Although slaves already residing in the province were not freed outright, the Act would gradually lead to the abolition of slavery. Following the passage of the Act in 1793, Upper Canada became a refuge for slaves escaping America. An estimated 30,000 slaves travelled north to freedom on the Underground Railroad until the abolition of slavery in 1865 following the American Civil War.

3 Daniel Q. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, Agincourt, Ont: The Book Society of Canada, 1981, p.48, p. 58; "Little Africa Commemorative Plaque Hamilton, Ontario Reviewer's Package," City of Hamilton, Community Services, Culture & Recreation, January 2007.

4 Daniel Q. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers, p. 145; Donald G. Simpson, Under the North Star. Black Communities in Upper Canada Before Confederation (1867), Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2005, p. 198. Hill states that the Baptist church was founded in 1847, but Simpson's estimate of the late 1830s is far more credible, Christian was originally from Virginia, but after coming to Canada, he was based primarily in Toronto.

5 Michael Katz. The People of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in a Mid Nineteenth Century City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

6 The five wards were St. Andrew, St. George's, St. Lawrence, St. Mary's and St, Patrick's. Michael Wayne, "The Black Population of Canada West on the Eve of the American Civil War: A Reassessment Based on the Manuscript Census of 1861," Social History, Vol. XXVIII No. 56 (November 1995), p. 485.

7 William Wells Brown, "The Colored People of Canada," a series of articles based on his travels in Canada West (Ontario), which appeared in the Pine and Palm in the fall of 1861, cited in Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers: Volume II, Canada, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill, NO and London, UK: University of North Carolina Press, 1986, p.464.

8 Reverend W.M. Mitchell, The Under-Ground Railroad, Westport. Conn: Negro Universities Press, (1860)/1970, p. 133.

9 Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers, p. 183.

10 Arlie Robbins, Prince Hall Masonry in Ontario, 1852-1933. North Buxton, ON: Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free and Accepted Masons of the Province of Ontario and Jurisdiction, 1980, iv, p. 132.

11 Hamilton Public Library, Special Collections; A. Jeffers Toby, ed. Hamilton: a Black Perspective. Hamilton: Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association of Hamilton and District. 1991; Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1971, p. 398. According to Winks, no copies of Johnson's journal have been recovered.

12 From Hamilton Public Library, as cited in Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers, p. 121.

13 Black Hamiltonians have served with the Canadian forces in every war since. They were part of the segregated unit, No. 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F., for example, that sewed in the First World War. They included Leslie Young, Ernest Boil, Charles Bryant, Frederick Lewis, Joshua Miller, Samuel Thornton and George Wimbish. (Calvin W, Ruck, The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret, Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1987, 85-6).

14 Henson (1796-1883) is also recognized for his contributions to the abolition movement and for his work in the Underground Railroad. He rose to international fame after Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledged his memoirs as a source for her 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was Henson's life experiences that inspired Ms. Stowe's creation of the character Uncle Tom in her 1852 outcry against slavery. Henson's life and work are commemorated and interpreted at Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site located in Dresden, Ontario.

15 Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers, p. 95.

16 Ibid, 150; Simpson, Under the North Star, p. 200.

17 A. Jeffers Toby. ed., Hamilton: a Black Perspective.