The following information is reproduced from the display panels in the exhibit “Oakville’s Black History”, as written and designed by Deborah Hudson, Curator of Collections, Oakville Museum at Erchless Estate.
Settlement & Slavery in Upper Canada
Many Loyalists who had fought and lost on the side of the British during the American Revolution (1775-83) settled in the area of Upper Canada, known today as Ontario. Among these Loyalists were African Americans - some who were free since volunteering to serve with the British Forces, and others who were still slaves to their British masters.
Upper Canada officially became a province in 1791, and John Graves Simcoe was its first Lieutenant Governor. A long-time supporter of the abolition of slavery, Simcoe introduced the Anti-Slavery Act, which was passed on July 9, 1793. The Act was “to prevent the further introduction of slaves, and to limit the term of contracts for servitude” within the province, allowing children of existing slaves to be automatically set free at the age of 25 years. This Act did not free existing slaves already in the province however, who were still considered as the property of their owners, and could still be bought and sold.
As a result of the Anti-Slavery Act, Upper Canada soon came to be viewed by African American slaves as the “Promised Land”. By the 1820s, “Underground Railroad” routes were already established, bringing more African Americans from the United States to freedom in Canada.
The Underground Railway
Upper Canada’s early Anti-Slavery Act was followed in 1833 by the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. In the United States however, slavery continued. Both free and escaped slaves from the United States had been making their way to Canada for many decades. Gradually their routes became more established as the “Underground Railroad”. This term referred to a secret network of African American and White, men and women, who used railroad language as a code to escort and assist individuals following the North Star to freedom.
The flow of African Americans into Canada increased dramatically after 1850, with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States. This Act encouraged the capture and return to slavery of African Americans, eliminating their right to testify on their own behalf, and denying their right to jury trial. This Act increased the risk to free African Americans as well. Anyone aiding in the escape of a slave could be fined or imprisoned, and many were.
It was through great personal sacrifice and great secrecy that the Underground Railroad continued to operate, doubling Ontario’s African American population from about 20,000 to 40,000 in the first ten years after the Fugitive Slave Act.
Captain Robert Wilson
Underground Railway to Oakville
Although lesser known as an extension of the Underground Railroad than other towns such as Amherstburg, Buxton, Chatham, Dresden, Hamilton, Kingston, Niagara Falls, Toronto, St. Catharines and Windsor, the Town of Oakville was the gateway to Canada for many African Americans, as early as the 1830s.
William Chisholm purchased the land around Sixteen Mile Creek in 1827 and in 1834 the Town of Oakville became an official Port of Entry into Canada. Ships from Oakville sailed throughout the Great Lakes and beyond, and many slaves were assisted by ship captains to stow away in grain vessels. Stories are told of a tunnel which ran from the Sixteen mile creek to the Herb Merry House on Trafalgar Road, and there is also some evidence to suggest there may have been a tunnel leading under Navy Street from near the Custom House.
Particularly well remembered is Captain Robert Wilson, who brought many African Americans to Oakville concealed aboard his ships. For years following the American Civil War (1861-1865), African Americans would come to George’s Square in Oakville to celebrate Emancipation Day, and those who had been helped by “Captain Robert” would visit him at his nearby “Mariners Home”, which still stands at 279 Lawson Street.
James Wesley Hill (also known as “Canada Jim”)
“Conductor” James Wesley Hill
James Wesley Hill was an escaped slave who crossed the Potomac River into Pennsylvania and then across the border in a packing box. His first earnings he sent back to his former owner as payment on his purchase price.
Hill first stayed with his friend Warren Wallace in Bronte. He became employed in Oakville by John Alton about 1850, to remove stumps and clear underbrush from a cleared wood lot. Hill rented a house from Alton and later rented the 100-acre Samuel Harris farm on 9th Line. He built a house which still stands today at 457 Maple Grove Drive. His strawberry farm helped to make Oakville the one time strawberry industry capital of Canada.
James Wesley Hill made several trips to Maryland, leading an estimated 700-800 African Americans back to Oakville along the Underground Railroad. Hill’s reputation as a “Conductor” led to a price being put on his head, and in the United States he was wanted “dead or alive”.
Hill had married Adeline Shipley in Maryland in 1859. His children Ruth and Frank remained in Oakville throughout their lives, and neither married. Today James Wesley Hill’s memory continues to be honoured in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he was known as “Canada Jim”.
“The Britannia” - An 1830s Oakville Schooner
Oakville’s First Black Entrepreneurs
Most African Americans who came to Oakville, either aboard ship or on foot, eventually left for larger centres with better economic opportunities. Of the individuals who chose to stay in the area, there are some well remembered family names: Adams, Brown, Butler, Budd, Clark, Cosley, Crowly, DeCoursey, Duncan, Edgehill, Hill, Holland, Johnson, Lee, Strothers, Wallace, Wayner and Wordsworth.
Joe Wordsworth is recorded as the first African American to set up business in Oakville. He worked as a Barber/ Hairdresser/Curler/Clothes-cleaner, and his 1850 business advertisement read: “J.W. Would respectfully acquaint his numerous customers that he will be found at his shaving-shop at regular hours, where they may be well accommodated with a comfortable shave, and Hair cut in the best style. Come one come all and all will go away well pleased.”
John Cosley was, according to his business card, a “Barber, Hairdresser, proprietor of Indian root shrub, toys, gunsmith etc.” He had patented two inventions in Ottawa: a breach loading rifle and a collapsible combination water and feed trough. Cosley was somewhat notorious as the editor and publisher of “The Bee” in the 1860s. He printed his news on a hand press he made himself, which printed both sides of the paper at once.
Christopher Columbus Lee
Oakville’s Early Black Community
The African Americans who settled in Oakville and Bronte found work where they could, and established themselves as part of the community. Benedict Duncan, William Holland and Lloyd Brown are remembered among the early African American citizens of Oakville. Benedict Duncan had walked away from his owners, who were experiencing financial difficulty, and made his way to Oakville on his own from Maryland. He found work as the sexton of St. John’s United Church.
Christopher Columbus Lee was employed for many years by R.K. Chisholm as the butler at “Erchless” - the 1856 Chisholm family home on Navy Street, which operates today as a part of the Oakville Museum.
William Strothers made brooms for a living and was also employed as the sexton at a local church. It was noted that he attended the door on Sundays in his frock coat and received the worshipers with “the courtly manners of the southern gentleman”.
John Wesley Wallace was the bell-boy at the Oakville House in the 1880s. One night he noticed smoke across the street and gave the alarm. The fire eventually impacted the entire block, but the early warning had allowed for the safety of the inhabitants and the safe removal of stock from the stores.
Church membership cards
Leaders in the Community
Samuel Adams, a free African American from Cantonsville, Maryland, came to Bronte in 1855 with his son Jeremiah. With $800.00 in gold from his successful business in Maryland, Adams opened a blacksmith shop. He was kept very busy in his work, from shoeing horses to outfitting schooners with hardware. Having invented the equipment for “stonehooking” - lifting flat stones from the bottom of the lake - Adams became very prosperous and was at one time the biggest land owner in Bronte.
Samuel Adams’ brother-in-law was the Reverend William Butler who was well known, and toured throughout Canada on lecture tours with then Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier. Butler also had the distinction of meeting Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace to discuss with her how the African Americans were doing in Canada. He traveled on a speaking tour throughout Britain, hoping to generate financial aid for African Canadians continuing to settle in the community.
About 1860, Samuel Adams and Reverend William Butler started to organize a church in Bronte. Drawing on the African American population in Oakville, the British Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1875. Their continued work with the Church eventually led to the building of the Turner African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oakville.
The Turner Chapel
The Turner African Methodist Episcopal Church
The Turner African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1891 and opened under Reverend William Roberts in 1892. The congregation included African Americans from Oakville and Bronte, and united members of the British Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal churches.
The Church was named after Bishop Henry Turner, a well-known preacher and community worker, whom President Lincoln had named as the first African American Chaplain in the United States Armed Forces.
As well as being an important religious centre, the Turner Chapel became a hub of social activity. The Church choirs were of a very high calibre, and often traveled on exchanges to other local churches. Revival meetings were well attended, operettas were organized and performed, and garden parties were held in the summer time. The congregation remained very active for nearly 100 years. Renovated in 1991, the Turner Chapel still stands today at 37 Lakeshore Road West, between Chisholm and Wilson Streets.
Alvin Duncan Heritage Collection
The Turner Chapel Community
In the early days when Samual Adams and Rev. William Butler were first organizing the church, there were reported to be between 600 and 700 African Americans in the Oakville and Bronte area. Following Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery in 1863, many African Americans joined the Union army. At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, some who had settled in Canada began to head back to the United States. Many of Oakville’s African American families had firmly established their roots however, and were to influence the community for generations to come.
Samuel Adams had lost one son, who was killed while fighting on the side of the Unionists in the American Civil War. In Oakville, his son Jeremiah, known as “Jerry”, became a teamster for the Chisholm brothers’ mill. He married Eliza Grace Butler and they remained in Oakville, celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary when he was 97 years old.
Their daughter Isabella married Benedict Duncan’s son Alexander Duncan, who had become the organist and choirmaster at the Turner Chapel by about 1915. Many associations and relationships developed around the social functions of the Turner Chapel, which had become firmly established as part of the greater Oakville community.
Gilbert & Sullivan performance, 1914
The Wayner Family
The uniting of families through marriage achieved great interest with the marriages in Oakville of three Wayner brothers to three Johnson sisters. Lorenzo Wayner and Martha Johnson were to play significant roles in the continuation of the Turner Chapel through the Great Depression. Lorenzo Wayner worked as the local garbage collector on horse and cart and then with a team of horses, for more than 28 years. In his spare time Lorenzo became the third pastor at the Turner Chapel, following “The singing Pastor”, Reverend C.P. Jones.
Wayner was one of five who kept the Church debt free through difficult times by personally guaranteeing a mortgage which allowed necessary repairs to be completed on the building. As the others passed on over the years, Wayner became solely responsible. Wayner also volunteered to do odd jobs around the Church, such as sweeping and mowing the lawn.
His wife Martha was of great assistance and inspiration to him throughout their lives together. Lorenzo Wayner became a generous supporter of the hospital, where Martha had spent her final days. In 1953, Wayner won the Oakville Lions Club Annual Award of Merit as man of the year.
Jean, Alvin and their mother Isabella Duncan, 1945
The Duncan Family
Today, in the year 2000, the Duncan Family is the only family living in the Oakville community whose history extends directly back to the Underground Railroad. Isabella Adams and Alexander Duncan had six children: sons Urban and Alvin and daughters Dorothy, Jean, Marion and Grace. Grace died young with the flu in 1924, and Urban just recently passed away in 1996. Alvin, Jean and Marion (now Marion Skeete) still live in Oakville, while Dorothy lives nearby in Burlington.
Dorothy became a Registered Nurse and has long been a volunteer at the Oakville Museum. Marion was a Registered Nurse’s Assistant, and Jean worked for many years for the Post Office. Urban worked for Imperial Oil in Toronto and was an avid musician, playing guitar and tenor banjo, and arranging music. Alvin was a Scoutmaster, worked for the aluminum factory, served as a Radar Operator for the Royal Air Force in World War II, and ran his own business “Al Duncan Television”.
Alvin has a keen interest in the history of the Oakville area, particularly its African American history, and also belongs to the Oakville Historical Society. He is well known for his presentations to school classes on the subject of the Underground Railroad. His daughter Arlene is a well-known performer, having acted in several movies. She also played the singing role of Harriet Tubman in the Underground Railroad musical docudrama “Sing Out Freedom Train”.
Generations of Community Achievement
Individuals whose grandparents and great Grandparents first arrived on the Under-Ground Railroad, have continued to make a Name for themselves within Oakville and Further afield. Ellla Crowley’s son Stan Crowley received an award of life Membership in the Basketball Hall of Fame for his 30 years service to the sport. He had officiated in countless national finals in both college basketball and football, including at the first Can-Am Bowl in 1978.
Ollie Johnson was well known in Oakville as a great athlete. He won the 60-yard dash in 1921 and became the first gold medalist in the newly opened Coliseum at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. After playing shortstop for the senior baseball “Oaks”, Ollie toured North America with the Buffalo based “Negro” pro baseball club the “Cuban Giants”. Ollie also competed in track and field events while overseas in World War I, winning medal and cup victories throughout Europe as well as at the Pershing Games in France.
On his return he played baseball for the “City League International Harvesters” in Hamilton. He was eventually lured back by his Oakville friends to play once again for the “Oaks”. In 1975 Ollie was quoted in the Oakville Beaver: “We’ve got the greatest country in the world - Canada. And particularly Ontario. And the best of all is Oakville. After 83 years, I should know.”
Generations of Community Involvement
Oakville was sometimes the home of choice for African Canadians whose families initially moved to other areas in Canada on the Underground Railroad.
Gene “Clay” Bonner won a bronze medal in Boxing at the Olympic Games in Paris, France in 1924. Bonner was descended from African Americans who had settled in the Montreal area, and moved to Oakville later in life. Bonner was introduced into the Boxing Hall of Fame, and received his trophy at the Ontario Boxing Championships at Oakville Trafalgar High School in 1974.
Like her brother-in-law Gene “Clay” Bonner, Minerva Bonner moved to Oakville later in life. She brought with her a memorable talent for singing and performing which she had developed as Mistress of Ceremonies at Montreal’s first all-Black night club, the Monte Carlo.
Her accompanist Gertrude Waters later became known as Oscar Peterson’s first piano teacher. In 1933 Minerva was the featured performer at the opening of Rockhead’s Paradise in Montreal, and later performed in New York City at the Black Cat Club on West Broadway. Minerva was once billed with the 10-year old Sammy Davis Jr. Unfortunately, her failing eyesight cut short her career as a professional entertainer. In Oakville during the 1970s however, Minerva was well known as a member of the Senior Citizens Choir, which performed widely, within a 50-mile radius of Oakville. She also led the Sunday Hymn Sings at the Oakville Senior Citizens Residence.
Henry Thomas Shepherd receiving the MBE award
Links to Other Communities
Other well-known African Americans from Oakville include John C. Holland, the son of slaves, who became a pastor in Hamilton. He established such a reputation for helping others in need that the “The John C. Holland Award” was established to honour outstanding members of Hamilton’s African American community. James Albert Johnson, also born and raised in Oakville, became the first and only Canadian Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Consecrated in 1908, he served for 20 years. His success was due in part to his early education in Oakville, at a time when such an education would have been difficult for an African American to obtain in the United States.
Henry Thomas Shepherd, a resident of Georgetown, was very well known in Oakville due to his connection with the local military. He enlisted with the Halton Volunteer Rifles in 1911 and went into action with the 58th Battalion during World War I. He was twice wounded, but re-enlisted with the Halton Rifles upon his return. Henry held the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major and served with the Lorne Rifles, re-enlisting during World War II. He received an MBE Award (Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and was a founding member of the Georgetown Legion. His father John Henry Shepherd (1859-1948) and Henry’s grandmother had settled in Georgetown after making their way to Canada on the Underground Railroad.
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale
This exhibit on Oakville’s Black History was developed in honour of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s performance at the Oakville Centre on Sunday February 6th, 2000.
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale was inspired and named after Nathaniel Dett, a celebrated composer who was born in Drummondville, now Niagara Falls, Canada in 1898. He became a church organist in the community, composing works such as “After the Cakewalk - March-Cakewalk”. He later studied music in the United States earning several degrees, and studied piano with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Dett was dedicated to the cause of Black music in America. He performed widely, including at Carnegie Hall and the Boston Symphony Hall, as well as before presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of his best known works “Listen to the Lambs” was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Nathaniel Dett was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Music in 1924, from Harvard University. It is interesting to note that Nathaniel Dett was known of and likely known by Alexander Duncan, who was the choirmaster at the Turner Chapel in Oakville about 1915. It seems fitting then, to celebrate Oakville’s African American heritage within the context of its much greater historic and geographic community.