By Jeff Tribe
Dalyce Newby’s ongoing genealogical quest led to a peaceful copse of maple trees along a quiet county road, just north of Otterville.
“There must be Wayners in here,” she said, indicating the African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery and church site, a significant yet little-understood reminder of Oxford County’s rich African-Canadian history.
Black settlement, essentially pioneering in the area began around 1829, encouraged by local Quakers, whose abolitionist views were based on the interpretation all humans were created equal, regardless of sex or race. Otterville-based historian Gail Lewis credits Joyce Pettigrew for initiating, leading and publishing related research summarized in her book A Safe Haven.
Contemporary interpretation identifies William Cromwell, a former resident of New York State who purchased a mill in the area, as instrumental in encouraging early Black settlement near Otterville, migration including a Wayner (or Wainer in the American spelling) who lived close by in their home state. Residents represented two main groups, those fleeing enslavement (nearby Ingersoll was a terminus for the Underground Railroad) or free Blacks escaping various levels of discrimination or persecution.
“It was an uncomfortable situation,” says Lewis, referring to blatant racism, fears free Blacks were taking jobs, along with repressive fugitive slave laws enacted in 1850 to appease slave-holding states for Ohio’s admission into the union as a free state. The threat of recapture in free states and return to enslavement was very real. Free Blacks were required to carry documentation verified by at least two white men in good standing, and were also subject to enslavement by unscrupulous means, as documented in the movie Twelve Years A Slave.
“Your freedom was always in jeopardy,” says Lewis.
Things were not perfect in Canada. However she says Blacks were respected as human beings with the rights to pursue the essentials of human happiness, particularly in a strongly abolitionist area.
“They knew they were safe within a Quaker community.”
Precise population numbers are hard to come by, given those escaping enslavement were leery of being identified via census, as Lewis describes it, “a white guy coming by with a book to record details.”
“A lot of people are going to run and hide.”
However, a plaque erected by the South Norwich Historical Society indicates numbers exceeded 100 “within a few years” of the first settlers, and a school would eventually be established north of Otterville along Middletown Line. Although not segregated, its students were mostly Black says Lewis, while other schools in the area also included Black students on their enrolment lists.
A half-acre lot was purchased in 1856 and a white frame church built, with an attendant cemetery. Services and camp meetings were held through the early 1900s, and following the church’s disappearance, the site remains one of the few preserved Black pioneer burial grounds in the province. Its silent presence recalls significant contributions to the area including clearing and farming the land, road building and workers plying skilled trades.
The area’s Black population declined during the 1880s for a variety of reasons, notably slavery’s abolition following the Union victory in the American Civil War. It was rare for an entire family to escape enslavement, and many individuals moved back to reunite with their families, says Lewis. Others, including free Blacks, assumed things would be much better than they eventually turned out to be following emancipation.
“But a lot of them returned home.”
Others moved on in search of employment or to larger centres she continued, and others simply stayed and blended in, often as unobtrusively as possible despite what Lewis considers a fascinating heritage.
“It’s all part of Canadian history we need to be really proud of.”
Efforts to celebrate that history included historical designation and documentation, and following the theft of the original gravestones, identifying individual gravesites via a 2007 project directed by Dr. Dean Knight. Following struggles to locate them with digging equipment, retired educator Mae Leonard was summoned. A water dowser like her father (John Barham), Leonard practiced the previous evening over foundations in her backyard.
She successfully identified a gravesite at a depth of close to two metres, adding a second children’s site nearby. With proof of concept established, Leonard identified graves throughout the property, subsequently marked with candle-inscribed stones.
“That was to light the light for them,” she explained.
Graves are concentrated at the back of the property, with the front Leonard believes, open for horse and buggy parking. The absence of a cemetery map and the original stones’ theft complicates identification, the passage of time a further challenge.
“There’s all kinds of Black history here,” Leonard summed up. “But unfortunately it wasn’t recorded.”
Newby’s connection to the Otterville settlement is illustrative. Her two times maternal great-grandfather Samuel Adams was a free Black who emigrated from Maryland to Bronte (Oakville) in the 1850s. Prospering as a blacksmith serving the sailing industry, he potentially supported the Underground Railroad through his brother-in-law James Wesley-Hill. Newby's father’s family ancestors moved from North Carolina to farm in Indiana, abruptly selling their properties at a disadvantage after a decade-plus and leaving with six other free Black families, she suspects under duress.
“That to me, means you’re being threatened,” speculating on intimidation from The Golden Circle, a Ku Klux Klan equivalent.
They relocated to North Buxton, a mixed (free and escaped Black) settlement near Chatham. Newby’s connection to the Wayners is through marriage. Participating in a Civil War re-enactment at Otterville as a member of the medical corps (inspired by Anderson Ruffin-Abbott, the first Canadian-born Black surgeon), she was intrigued to discover two Wayner gravestones in a Quaker cemetery, along with numerous references in Pettigrew’s book.
“It’s not a simple history, the more you delve into it, more things come up,” Newby said, noting for example, slavery did exist in Canada, and a chronic lack of African-Canadian history in our educational systems.
“It’s not just Black history, it’s Canadian history. That’s sort of the whole thing, learning from the past so we can move forward.”
Heather Rennalls’ passion for sharing Black history was ignited by learning of the Otterville settlement, following emigration to Woodstock from Britain in 1992. An active member of the London Black History Committee and Ontario Black History Society, Rennalls created a traveling presentation on Oxford County Black history featuring the Otterville settlement, Ingersoll’s role in the Underground Railroad and abolitionist John Brown’s little-known visit to the area. Brown was seeking finances and soldiers for his plan to raid the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry, and subsequently end enslavement through armed slave rebellion. He reportedly stopped at Ingersoll, Otterville and met with a member of the Tillson family, founders of Tillsonburg.
Rennalls’ efforts are summarized on her Heather’s Historicals website which also provides links to related organizations, events and employment opportunities.
“I do this just to get the information out there,” says Rennalls of what has developed into a personal passion. People tend to be both surprised and interested following in-person presentations, she says, indicating interest is there in a topic which has not historically been well addressed.
“Black people have been here for a very long time and made great contributions to this country,” she concluded. ◊