#ImmigrationMatters in Chatham-Kent, Ontario - Leading by example

Leading by example: 19th century newcomer kicked off a lasting family tradition of community involvement

January 25, 2019


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1861 schoolhouse in North Buxton. Image provided by Buxton National Historic Site & Museum.

When Black abolitionist Abraham D. Shadd immigrated to Canada from the United States, he found himself in a thriving Black community.

The community was founded by William King, an American who had inherited 15 slaves and moved to Canada in 1849 to free them. Established in what is today’s Municipality of Chatham-Kent, the area became known as Buxton, after British abolitionist Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. King’s former slaves were among the town’s first residents: the arriving Black families purchased 50-acre lots to clear and farm, and the town thrived.

Education was its cornerstone. The Buxton Mission School offered former fugitives and their children a high-quality education. Its reputation caught the interest of nearby European settlers, who sought permission for their children to attend as well. Eventually, the district school was closed and the Buxton Mission School became the area’s only integrated school.

Shadd comes to North Buxton

A free man, Shadd had raised his children in Westchester, Pennsylvania so they could receive a good education at a Quaker school. (They would go on to careers in law, journalism, teaching and medicine.)

Shadd’s move north was motivated in part by the Fugitive Slave Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1850, which allowed slave and bounty hunters to capture escaped slaves and free men and return them to bondage. Convinced of the opportunities, he moved to Buxton with his family in 1853 to build a new life.

Rising to the top

By the time he arrived, Buxton had a sawmill, grist mill, potash and pearl-ash factories, a brickyard, a blacksmith shop, a hotel and a dry-goods store. But it didn’t take Shadd long to establish himself and emerge as a leader in the growing community. He built a public school on his own family farm, provided the funds to keep it operating as needed, and became the first Black man elected to public office in Canada with his election to the Raleigh Township council.

He made his own tools and equipment available to area farmers as needed, helping them to prosper as well. When the nearby railroad was reluctant to reimburse farmers for crops lost to fires started by sparks from a passing train, he led a campaign for compensation. He lost the battle, but funded the legal costs himself.

Building community, fostering freedom

Shadd eventually served as deputy returning officer in Raleigh Township elections. He was also a member of the Masonic Lodge, and contributed significantly to its work during the early years when former slaves were flocking to southwestern Ontario in search of freedom.

The Shadd family hub remains in North Buxton to this day. Shadd’s descendants share his natural aptitude for leadership, gravitating to influential positions and continuing the tradition of philanthropy.

As for Buxton itself, it would go on to become one of the most successful Black refugee colonies. Many graduates of its school became teachers, doctors, lawyers, legislators and other professionals. Its population peaked at more than 2,000 residents, almost all descendants of freed and fugitive slaves who had escaped the United States via the Underground Railroad.

Immigration profile: Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants in Chatham-Kent make up some 9% of the population.
  • Between 1980 and 2016, 46% of all immigrants who came to Chatham-Kent were sponsored by family, while 35% were economic immigrants and 14% were refugees.
  • A beacon for those travelling on the Underground Railroad during the mid-1800s, Chatham-Kent had the largest concentration of Black immigrants and refugees in Canada. Read more about what immigration does for our country.

Did you know?

  • One of Shadd’s daughters, Mary Ann Shadd Carey, settled in Chatham-Kent and launched The Provincial Freeman newspaper. She was the first Black female newspaper editor in North America, and the first female in Canada to hold that position.

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