by Denise Francis
The base stones of 83 Essex Street, former British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, were set in June of 1880. Its cornerstone was set on September 18th, 1880, as recorded in Guelph newspapers: The Mercury and The Advertiser. The contents of the cornerstone were described in the same article, “Copy of the Holy Scriptures, Hymn Book of the BME Church, copy of the
Missionary Messenger, the organ of the church, and copies of the Mercury and Herald. The roots of the BME Church were in the American Methodist Episcopal Church and the Underground Railroad. In 1783, after the American Revolution, slaves accompanied their Loyalist masters into Nova Scotia and other British colonies north of the border, some traveling to Upper Canada (Ontario). There had been slavery in Upper Canada as early as the French regime, as there were known slaves in the Windsor area in the mid 1700s.
In 1793, Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe, an Anglican, regarded slavery as anti-Christian. As a result, he ensured the passage of “An Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves and to limit the term of contracts for servitude within this Province.” It was the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, and while it was met with resistance from local slave owners, it abolished the lifelong enslavement of the children of slaves, and prevented further slaves from being brought into the colony.
Once news of Simcoe’s legislation reached slave states in the US, Upper Canada became the destination for many escapees, often with the help of the Native community on highland trails. It was upon those trails that the Underground Railroad was created in the late 1820s. The fugitive slave Railroad was originally a loose knit coalition of anti-slavers, most of whom were Hicksite Quakers, who began to aid and abet the movement of escaped slaves into non-slave states and Upper Canada. Once those slaves got beyond the reach of American law, they created communities in border towns like Windsor and Niagara, while others moved inland towards towns like Chatham and the Queen’s Bush Settlement (current day north Waterloo and Wellington counties) on a tributary of the Grand River.
Guelph was established as a village in 1827 and most former fugitives who came through or stayed in the town came north from Lake Ontario and the Niagara River crossings. Between 1793 and 1865, tens of thousands of African-American slaves entered Canada via the network of Native and white anti-slavery activists. President Lincoln ended the slave economy through an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1st, 1863. Although slavery was not formally abolished in the United States, until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment became law after the defeat of the South.
Guelph’s place in all that activity was at first no more than a stopping place for most on their way to the Queen’s Bush in north Wellington and Waterloo counties, the largest settlement of escaped slaves in the colony. By the 1850s that settlement was disbanded, and many of the families and individuals dispersed to various communities, some to Guelph, north to Owen Sound and Collingwood or west to Chatham and a myriad of other places throughout the province.
Although Black benevolent societies and fraternal organizations were significant players in helping former slaves in Canada adjust to freedom and the climate of the north, they had a great many allies including Quakers, Native Americans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Anglicans. Other allies included Anti-Slavery societies, of which George Brown’s Toronto newspaper, The Globe was a staunch supporter. There were a number of reformers in the Guelph area who played local roles.
The neighbourhood of Essex and Waterloo streets had first become home to Guelph’s English Methodist Community who named the streets, and then to black settlers who found the community welcoming. Some of the Blacks had Caribbean or Loyalist origins, but more were from Queen’s Bush families. In the 1881 census of the province, two thirds of the 107 Guelphites of African-American origins lived in the neighborhood.
The building at 83 Essex Street ceased to operate as a BME church for more than 20 years from the 1970s to 1994. In 1994 a congregation was reformed under a minister from the Caribbean. The minister and her congregation left the BME Church in 2009. The Guelph Black Heritage Society (GBHS) was formed after the BME Church was listed for sale in November 2011. The GBHS’s offer to purchase the BME Church was accepted and the sale was finalized in December 2012. The Guelph BME Church building has been renamed Heritage Hall.
In August 2013, 83 Essex Street was designated a cultural heritage property by the City of Guelph. The plaque outside the Heritage Hall reads:
“Built in 1880 of local limestone in gothic revival style, the B.M.E. church became the centre of Guelph’s Black community. The city’s early black community of fugitive slaves from the United States settled near Waterloo and Essex streets as workers in area stone quarries. After worshipping in a frame church nearby, this stone church was built as a meeting place and a safe haven.”
The mission of the Guelph Black Heritage Society is to restore and maintain the historical former British Methodist Episcopal Church building. 83 Essex Street, now known as the “Heritage Hall”, serves as a community cultural and spiritual gathering space and promotes Guelph and Wellington County’s distinctive place in Southwestern Ontario’s rich Black heritage.
GBHS activities include providing the community the opportunity to learn about our community’s Black heritage by staging presentations during Black History Month, Emancipation Day and throughout the year; providing space for events, workshops, meeting space for clubs and other community groups, and providing members of the community with rental space for live events (weddings, concerts, day camps, and more).
The Guelph Black Heritage Society is in the midst of the “Rampin’ It Up!” fundraising campaign. The purpose of this campaign is to achieve wheelchair accessibility into Heritage Hall via the Freedom Ramp, foyer and accessible washroom. The fundraising goal is $50,000 and we will accept donations of labour and materials to help off-set construction costs. The Guelph Black Heritage Society is a registered charity. Registration # 80158 3907 RR0001. Tax receipts will be issued for donations.
To learn more about our campaign or to make a donation at our GoFundMe.
contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Denise was raised in Guelph and is a graduate of the University of Guelph. Denise is a long-term employee of the Waterloo Catholic District School Board and works in the Human Resource Services Department. Denise is a founding board member of the Guelph Black Heritage Society and currently serves as President / Treasurer.