Preserving Black Heritage in London, Ontario: The Fugitive Slave Chapel (1847-1869)

by Matthew Beaudoin, Holly Martelle, Nicole Brandon (Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc.), and Darryl Dann (Independent Researcher)

The plain, wood framed, vernacular style, residential cottage sitting upon the lot at 275 Thames Street, London, Ontario, was slated for demolition to make way for an expansion of the Aboutown Travel Services parking facilities. After the request for demolition was approved, groups of concerned and aware citizens began protesting and combating the order because they remembered the history associated with the structure; they remembered the building as the Fugitive Slave Chapel.

History of the Slave Chapel

The area surrounding London has an important, if often forgotten, association with 19th century Black heritage in North America. As one of the terminus points on the Underground Railroad, the population of former slaves was increasing during the early nineteenth century. As such, there are numerous points of local history, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, near Dresden, as well as communities, like the former settlements of Wilberforce, near Lucan, and Buxton, near Chatham. The first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church (referred to as the Fugitive Slave Chapel) in London, Ontario was one of these focal points.

275 Thames Street c.1926

The AME Church was built in the area known as the Fork of the Thames in 1847 to service a settlement of Black refugees who lived on the south side of the Thames River. The AME Church purchased the lot through a board of trustees from William Clark, a carpenter who obtained the original deed for the lot. The church was renamed the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856 to reinforce its commitment to the British Crown. In 1869, a new church building was erected at 430 Grey Street, which is the location of the current Beth Emanuel Church, and the property containing the original AME Church was sold to James Seale. The church building at 275 Thames Street remained on the lot and became a residential property. It was long assumed that the original structure was demolished; however, E.J. Carty, a reporter for The London Advertiser (1864-1936), was able to confirm that the structure at 275 Thames Street was the original structure.

During its tenure at 275 Thames Street, the AME Church was visited by several notable people, including John Brown, who spoke to a delegation here advocating revolution and what would transpire as the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  In 1986, the London Historic Sites Committee recognized the AME Church as a site of historic and cultural importance in London, and erected a plaque on the building.

Public Excavations

The public outcry concerning the demolition of the building was enough to get a 60 day stay of demolition to properly document the cultural and archaeological heritage of the property. In this time, Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc. (TMHC) offered its services to conduct the archaeological assessments. While the City of London financed some portions of the archaeological assessment, much of the personnel, time, and resources was supplied by TMHC, volunteers from the Ontario Archaeological Society and the general public, who helped to make this project a success.

Volunteers conducting excavations at the site.

The excavations were conducted during weekends and included mapping the property, the excavation of test pits, the excavation of one-meter units, and the mapping and excavation of identified features. Given the time constraints placed on the project by the imminent demolition, the outpouring of public volunteers formed the backbone of this project and helped complete our archaeological assessment before the deadline.

A total of 41 units were excavated in the roughly 20 meters by 15 meters area behind the standing structures. The archaeological work uncovered a variety of domestic artifacts that included ceramics, glassware, iron objects, and modern refuse. The majority of the artifacts examined to date have been associated with the later 19th/early 20th century habitation of the site. A total of eight potential cultural features were identified and excavated; one of which may have been a grey water pit and the rest were likely small refuse pits.

Where are we now?

At the time of writing, the majority of fieldwork has been completed and volunteers have completed the processing of artifacts, with cataloging and analysis to follow. There are plans to conduct additional mechanical topsoil stripping behind the house to look for additional features. During the investigation process, the demolition plans for the building were put on hold to allow for the potential relocation of the structure to a new home.

275 Thames Street in 2013

The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project organizers are presently trying to raise funds (approximately $160,000) to relocate the Fugitive Slave Chapel structure to an empty lot adjacent to the Beth Emanuel Church on Grey Street. Once relocated, the Fugitive Slave Chapel will require at least $500,000 to renovate and repurpose it as a community center that will offer meals, counseling, and educational programs, as well as being a museum and focal point of Black history in London. Until now the Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project has had moderate successes at raising the initial relocation funds from public donations through efforts such as their ‘2¢ Worth’ campaign; however, they will continue to require further donations to make their vision to preserve the Fugitive Slave Chapel a success. The revitalized role of Fugitive Slave Chapel continues to have tremendous potential to be a focal point of Black heritage in the area, as well as serving members of the London community in need.

This project helped emphasize the importance of archaeology to help communities remember, as well as the role we have in helping preserve, forgotten pasts; however, this was not a one-sided relationship. The public played a vital role in the implementation, excavation, and conservation of this project and it would not have been possible without their interest and support. While this project was not without its difficulties, as with any project, it shows that CRM archaeology and public engagement can work together to conduct archaeology that is significant to local communities.

Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

Getting to Know the 2012 Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award Winners

As a professional organization, the Society for Historical Archaeology promotes the participation of student members and supports the advancement of their careers. Students, in turn, may see the SHA as a resource in their professional development. One way the SHA encourages student participation in the annual meeting is through the Ed and Judy Jelks Student Travel Award, discussed on the SHA blog by both Paul Mullins and Charlie Ewen. Graduate students may apply for the $500 award to defray the cost of travel when presenting research at the annual conference.

What kind of students and research win the award? Mullins concisely described the work of last year’s two recipients and we were curious to learn a little more about Corey McQuinn and Adrian Myers as students. We interviewed McQuinn and Myers and the following is a summary of their responses.

Corey McQuinn, a master’s student concentrating in Historical Archaeology at the University of Albany, researches enslavement in the Northeast, an understudied topic. He examines the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam, New York, and how different archaeological models of enslavement and racialization apply to the Northern context. Through another project focused on the Underground Railroad in Albany, New York, he studies how the construction of a community that supported the Underground Railroad relates to New York’s earlier history as a slave state and its continued economic dependence on enslaved labor corps.

McQuinn working with students at the Schoharie River Center archeological field school in Montgomery County, New York. Dragon site on the Schoharie Creek (2008).

In addition to this academic research, as a project manager for the cultural resource management firm Hartgen Archaeological Associates, Inc., McQuinn says he must be flexible and cover a broad range of time periods and historic contexts. He has worked in a variety of historical contexts, including cemetery excavations, tavern sites, Shaker village sites, farmsteads and industrial contexts. He has also helped to run Hartgren’s youth archaeological field school summer programs, getting students involved in community archaeology.

McQuinn and students screening at Stephen and Harriet Myers house youth field school in Albany, New York, last summer.

The Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award helped McQuinn attend his first SHA conference, where he presented a paper, met other professionals in his field, including authors of papers and books he has read. A highlight of the conference was getting to know people and learning about work in progress. He finds both the annual conference and quarterly newsletter valuable resources for identifying potential partnerships and opportunities in the future.

Though his three kids, Remember, Beatrix, and Jasper, are his greatest successes, McQuinn also received the New York Archaeological Association’s William Beauchamp Student Award in 1998 and the 1997-1998 Dana Student Internship Grant from Ithaca College. He is looking forward to completing his master’s thesis next semester and his PhD in the future.

Myers excavating at the PoW camp in Manitoba.

A PhD candidate at Stanford, Adrian Myers, learned of the Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award through attending the SHA conference, SHA business meetings, and from the HISTARCH email listserv. The award enabled him to present a paper, “Dominant Narratives, Popular, Assumptions, and Radical Reversals in the Archaeology of German Prisoners of War in a Canadian National Park” in the session chaired by Michael Roller and Paul Shackel, “Reversing the Narrative.” The paper was about all the surprising and counterintuitive things he encountered while studying the history of Nazi soldiers in a prison camp in Canada during World War II. Long interested in the history of the Second World War, his dissertation research is a historical archaeological study of a prison camp in Manitoba, Canada. Over three seasons of work he and colleagues surveyed, mapped, and excavated portions of the camp. Myers also travelled to Germany and met with three men who had been prisoners of the camp.

Myers has participated in a variety of other projects, including the “Van Project” at the University of Bristol, the Stanford Gymnasium Dig, and Bonnie Clark’s field school at the Granada Relocation Center, a World War II Japanese internment camp in Colorado. He also used free Google Earth imagery to map the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, assembled and co-edited a book on archaeology and internment camps, did a study on 20th century porcelain electrical insulatorsand also manages to work part-time in CRM archaeology.

Myers interviewing German PoWs in Germany.

Also a recipient of the National Geographic Society Waitt Grant (2009), Myers suggests undergraduate students pursue ideas for projects, even if it seems impossible and incredibly far off, especially if they are passionate about the subject. He suggests finding a supportive graduate program and, with effort the research can probably be done. He also says having an awesome adviser helps.

Both McQuinn and Myers sound passionate about their research and actively pursue opportunities to participate in projects and make connections with their peers in historical archaeology. They recognize the SHA as a resource for students and advise them to participate in the organization by speaking or corresponding with other archaeologists and presenting at conferences. The Academic and Professional Training Student Subcommittee (SSC) is starting a group discussion on student professionalism and the Society for Historical Archaeology. Please become a member of the conversation by joining the SSC Yahoo! group. Email your request to JCoplin@gc.cuny.edu and include your email to join.

We look forward to hearing from you!