The World is a Stage

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It is Black History Month, of which I am going to write, but you will note this column will be using historical information from various sources and some words are not politically correct today. However, they were not slanderous when used then as they maybe considered today. I will also be using ‘black’ to describe persons of colour as former President Obama did.

The 1852 Gazetteer for Oxford County shows the following information: Negros: 123 (but none in Dereham Township where Tillsonburg was located). There were 101 in Norwich and 18 in Missoura. (They are missing four somewhere).

Cooper and Armstrong’s Tillsonburg: A History 1825-1982, notes that in 1858, John Brown, the abolitionist from the United States did a tour of Canada. “He made a lengthy stay in Ingersoll, which at the time had a large Negro population. Brown also visited the Negroes in Norwich - it is said in an effort to settle land claims. The claims can have been only among the Negroes who had arrived since 1851. Brown was accompanied by 'Mr. Tillson,' although which Mr. Tillson is not revealed. Either the father George, or one of his sons, George Barker or Edwin Delevan, might have played host, for all had anti-slavery sympathies.” We know from the Tillson family that sympathized with the slaves and supported the north in the Civil War.

By the 1861 Census there were 12 Black families in Dereham Twp. and two in Tillsonburg. It was the last census that differentiated race in Canada allowing us to follow their growth and movements.

We also know that in 1861 Sarah Freeman a 16-year-old mulatto (half black) was living with Dr. Sylvanous Joy on his towered home on Oxford St. He also traveled around town and country in a chauffeured carriage in the late 1800s. “His carriage, with its Negro coachman and swaying under the doctor’s vast bulk, was a familiar sight in town and countryside.”

We know from little bits and pieces from the old Tillsonburg Observer and can surmise from that how they were treated. For example, on July 20, 1894, E.D. and Mary Ann Tillson hosted the Methodist Church’s Garden Party of the Nations on the beautiful lawn of Annandale House. “Booths were erected along the south side of the large lawn and each booth was gotten up in a manner representative of the styles and customs of the nations whose name it bore, and the articles offered for sale were mostly staples of diet produced by said nation. The countries represented were Canada, Southern States of the neighbouring Republic, Iceland, China and Japan, Scotland and England, and on the top of each booth floated the flag of the respective nations.” The neighbouring Southern States booth was hosted by some of our local Blacks, “the Negroes sold no mean quantity of the luscious melon.” Not much information, but it shows that they were integrated into the Church and allowed on the prominent family’s lawn and their booth visited by the towns people.

I was thrilled when Mae Leonard of Otterville worked so hard dowsing our Pioneer Graveyard, that there was a section where our Black citizens were buried. That they were allowed to share a white graveyard was not always allowed in other communities. We know that the Bird family was interred there as one of their little one’s tombstone survives. The father was Professor Bird, Barber on Broadway in the early to mid-1870s. Malachi had served in a black regiment in the Civil War and his wife Ellen was a former slave. His shop being on Broadway also tells much about being accepted in town. Theirs is a most interesting story I will write about when there is more space. We suspect the second family was the Freeman family but as yet have no proof.

There is more information about our Tillsonburg’s Black Heritage, although it needs more researching, if anyone out there would like to help.

If you are interested in the Underground Railroad and how those old spirituals the slaves sang, were actually codes to help the escape to Canada, you might want to attend the Michael Toby Concert on Feb. 26th. Details will be in my column next week, so don’t miss it! 


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