Historic things can come in small packages
Joe O'Neil, of the London Advisory Committee on Heritage, shows the house that once housed the original Beth Emanuel church July 19, 2011. (Morris Lamont/QMI Agency files)
It’s a paradox: The stuff that looms largest in history often appears quite small, even disappointing, when finally seen in person.
The little things that history overlooks, however, often speak loudest generations later.
The Plains of Abraham, the Alamo, Pier 21, the Statue of Liberty — all cast long shadows in North American annals, but in many ways fail to live up to their hype. Instead, it’s the stories behind those hallowed places — the small stuff, often personal — that makes history come alive.
So it is with U.S. Civil War history that spills across the border into Canada.
From their school days, many Canadians know that southwestern Ontario occupied a key place in the history of that grim American war. Among other things, the region was a major terminus on the Underground Railroad that spirited escaped U.S. slaves to safety across the border. It’s where escaped American slave Josiah Henson — the model character for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin — finally found safety.
Today, in museum collections in the area, you can find horrifying objects that sum up that era’s history in ways no towering monument does: Can anything speak louder, for example, than a slave child’s shackle worn from use?
Dawn, Wilberforce, Buxton — names immortalized on roadside plaques in southwestern Ontario — were once thriving pre-Confederation black settlements, made up of escaped slaves and free blacks.
Tiny Buxton, just outside Chatham, Ont., often overlooked even though it’s just a stone’s throw from Canada’s busiest highway, produced dozens of Civil War soldiers who fought for the North in segregated units, including the famous Massachusetts 54th celebrated in the Hollywood movie Glory.
What many southwestern Ontarians might not appreciate, is that London was also a key centre in the development of the region’s pioneer black community — until now, that is, thanks to a tiny fugitive slave chapel being rescued from history’s dustbin.
The small wood-frame building has languished for decades as a little house on a site owned by a transportation company.
The owner now wants to demolish the structure to make more elbow room. But behind the pint-sized building’s sad facade, there’s a mid-1800s chapel, built by former slaves in a trailblazing black enclave that grew and prospered once the railway punched through the area.
The building is also directly connected to the Civil War: John Brown, the firebrand American abolitionist, spoke there in 1858 while raising money to overthrow slavery south of the border. A year later, he led a botched raid on a federal weapons arsenal in Harpers Ferry, in what’s now West Virginia, igniting an early powder keg for the war that broke out two years later.
There’s a whole series “if-not-fors” to the chapel’s rescue. If not for London, Ont., heritage activist Joe O’Neil, who vowed to “go medieval” if authorities allowed the touchstone to the past to be razed. If not for the owner, who agreed to allow the building to be moved off-site.
If not for another pioneer black church in London, still active, Beth Emanuel, which agreed to make room on its site for the chapel.
If not for a fundraising campaign to move the little church, seeded by O’Neil’s parents. Their ancestors included Ontarians who rode a reverse Underground Railroad out of Canada during the Rebellion of 1837, when colonial elites moved to crush opposition to their iron-fisted rule. To this day, they feel a debt of gratitude to the black community.
In history, the slave chapel reminds us, good things often come in small packages. Even if they’ve been neglected for generations.