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Negro Colonies in Kent County


IN the decades immediately preceding the American Civil War, the famous Underground Railroad was instrumental in spiriting thousands of negro slaves from the Southern States to the free soil of Canada. Kent county, by reason of its proximity to the border, became the location of several refugee colonies.

Many of the refugees made their homes in the county town of Chatham. At the peak of the influx, approximately one-third of Chatham’s 6,000 people were colored. These refugees settled largely in the eastern part of the town, were, naturally, the more enterprising among the southern slaves. Many of them were well educated and some in time became quite well-to-do.

Meanwhile, aided by Northern Abolitionists and Canadian and British sympathizers, ambitious plans were made for placing other fugitives on the land and giving them an opportunity to work out their own salvation. Funds were subscribed, and lands acquired to be resold to the negroes on easy terms. Town sites and farm tracts designed especially for the newcomers were surveyed in the rural parts of Kent; and settlements established.

One of the most famous of these colonies was the Dawn settlement, also known as Fairport, southwest of the present town of Dresden. Among the first to settle there was Rev. Josiah Henson. Born at Port Tobacco, Maryland, in 1789, Henson spent some 40 years in bondage, escaping to Canada about 1830 and shortly after settling at Fairport where his abilities speedily made him a leader in the colony. With financial assistance from white sympathizers, some 250 acres of heavily timbered lands were purchased, and the British and American Institution established, the purpose being to educate the negroes, train them in farming and industry till they could support themselves. The Institution was, probably, the first technical school in Canada.

Henson got funds from Boston to build a sawmill, and a grist mill and other pioneer industries were started. With the profits of lumbering, helped out by donations, the enterprise at first prospered. Henson made three trips to England, lecturing and raising funds, and on one occasion was presented to Queen Victoria. Later, the Institution fell into financial difficulties; so much so that the Courts had to take charge and dispose of the properties. The lands were sold in 1871 for $30,000, the net proceeds, $21,730, being constituted a fund for the education of the negroes in Kent. Wilberforce Educational Institute at Chatham was the outcome.

Henson is famous as the original of Uncle Tom, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s celebrated fiction character. The novelist is reputed to have secured much of her material from Henson, whom she visited at Fairport. Henson died on May 5, 1883, and lies buried on the Institute site, long since lapsed back into farm land.

Fairport was, however, only one of the negro colonies in Kent. Another was New Kentucky, in Chatham township close to the town line and just south of Concession 6; where, in 1860, the main street was lined with cabins. On the borders of Rondeau, another settlement was established at Governor Simcoe’s empty and far reaching townsite of Shrewsbury.

Among the leaders in the various movements to help the fugitive slaves was Rev. William King. A native of Ireland, he married a Louisiana heiress and thereby became a slave-owner. Later he freed his slaves and brought them to Canada, where, in 1849, a grant of 9,000 acres was secured in Raleigh township and the Buxton or Elgin settlement established. As originally planned, farms of 50 acres each were sold to the negroes at $2.50 an acre, repayable in instalments of $12.50 a year without interest. In no great time the land was all taken up by colored settlers. King was head of the mission, supervised the school, and had oversight of the various local industries established for the benefit of the colony; and visited the Old Country to raise funds for building.

The mission station, opened November 28, 1849, became a regularly organized congregation on June 6, 1858. By 1864, the settlement possessed a steam grist mill, saw mill, two pearl ash factories, one shoe shop, two general stores, one blacksmith shop, one wagon shop and one cooper shop. With timber plentiful, its principal business was the manufacture of square timber and staves. The school had an average attendance of 40 pupils, and the mission church, built in 1850, a seating capacity of 200.

The most striking episode in the history of the negro settlements in Kent was the visit of John Brown, the celebrated abolitionist, to Chatham in 1858. Brown, a fanatic in his hatred of slavery, had conceived the idea of fomenting a widespread slave insurrection in the south with a view to securing control of the United States government and freeing the slaves.

Many of the Chatham negroes were well educated and prosperous, the various settlements in Kent were thriving, and Brown sought and confidently anticipated strong support.

Brown’s initial conferences with Chatham sympathizers were held in the office of Israel D. Shadd’s "Provincial Freeman," which occupied a portion of the brick building still standing at the southeast corner of King and Adelaide streets. As the scheme developed, meetings were held in the First Baptist church on King Street East, and in a little frame school on Princess Street. On May 8, 1858, a conference of white and colored sympathizers adopted a constitution and elected a congress and cabinet to take. control of the United States on the anticipated success of the conspiracy.

Brown revisited Chatham in the summer of 1859. Meanwhile the enthusiasm of his Chatham supporters had time to cool, and the counsels of Hon. Archie McKellar, Rev. Wm. King and others prevailed against the fanatic enthusiasm of the abolitionist. When, on October 16, 1859, Brown made his celebrated raid on Harper’s Ferry, his desperate band contained only one recruit from Chatham.

The slaves failed to join Brown, who was captured and hanged at Charleston on December 2, 1859. But in the eyes of the North, his death on the scaffold transformed the crazy abolitionist into a martyr, and did much to precipitate the Civil War.

Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863, and the fall of the Confederacy, reversed the entire trend of negro settlement in Kent.

After 1865, the refugees were no longer hunted slaves, but free men. Doubtless through the years in this colder northern clime their thoughts had turned longingly toward the land of the palmetto and the cotton. Now the refugees flocked back to the United States. The more ambitious became in many instances officials of the "carpet bagger" governments which for many years after the Civil War dominated the southern states. The majority found less spectacular but perhaps more useful activities in the everyday life of America.

With the end of the Civil War there ended, also, the need for refugee colonies, and, likewise, the need for British and American donations to sustain them. In no great time, the industries which had sprung up, and the communities dependent on them, disintegrated. Henson’s settlement at Fairport fell upon evil days, and the British and American Institution passed out of existence. In the once populous Buxton settlements, white farmers gradually replaced the colored folk. New Kentucky lapsed back into farm land; and most of the cabins of Shrewsbury were deserted and weeds grew in its far-reaching streets.

This trend has continued through the years; and while a small proportion of the descendants of the original refugees clung to the lands which had first set their fathers free, the majority gravitated to Detroit and other American cities which offered larger opportunities. The negro influx, which for a time threatened to change the whole complexion of Kent, proved merely a passing phase in its history.

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