Looking back at Toronto’s historic anti-slavery convention of 1851

For three days that September, the North American Convention of Colored Freemen gathered at St. Lawrence Hall to discuss abolitionism, the Fugitive Slave Act — and how to assist Black people fleeing into Ontario
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Feb 13, 2020
Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall (shown here in 1885) first opened in 1850. (Toronto Public Library)

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Since opening in 1850, Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall has played host to politicians and socialites, ballerinas and musicians. In its early years, it also served as a venue for the abolitionist movement. In September 1851, hundreds gathered there for the North American Convention of Colored Freemen, a three-day event focusing on the fight against slavery in the United States — and how to assist Black people fleeing into Ontario, then known as Canada West.

The convention came in response to the Fugitive Slave Act (also known as the Fugitive Slave Law), which the United States Congress had passed on September 18, 1850. Intended to appease Southerners amid the rising tensions that would lead to the Civil War, the legislation permitted the pursuit and retrieval of slaves in any state, including northern states where slavery had been abolished. Citizens were required to help slave owners apprehend escaped slaves; anyone who assisted the escapees faced up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. As federal agents were entitled to a recovery fee, free Black people faced an increased risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

The law prompted a wave of migration to Canada: estimates suggest that 30,000 escaped slaves and free Black people settled in the country during the early 1850s, many of them in the southwestern portion of Canada West, in modern-day Chatham-Kent and Essex County.

Abolitionist activities were first recorded in Toronto during the late 1830s. The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada formed at a meeting at Toronto’s city hall (now part of St. Lawrence Market) on February 26, 1851. A ladies’ auxiliary was also established, and the two organizations raised more than $1,100 that year to support refugees. The group’s leadership was a mix of Black and white people from across Canada West and included Globe publisher George Brown and journalist and activist Henry Bibb.

Henry Bibb

Henry Bibb launched the anti-slavery newspaper Voice of the Fugitive on New Year’s Day 1851. (Wikimedia Commons)

Born a slave in Kentucky in 1815, Bibb made several escape attempts before permanently achieving freedom in 1840. Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Bibb and his wife Mary moved from Detroit to Sandwich (now the west side of Windsor) and launched the anti-slavery Voice of the Fugitive newspaper on New Year’s Day 1851. Bibb was also a founding director of the Refugee Home Society, which used donations from anti-slavery groups to purchase land in Essex County that could then be sold to refugees.

During the first week of April 1851, a number of prominent abolitionists delivered speeches at St. Lawrence Hall. British parliamentarian George Thompson drew 1,200 people to his talk. Frederick Douglass caused controversy when he suggested that some refugees in the audience might have served the cause better by staying in the U.S. and revolting against slaveholders.

That summer, Black Vermont abolitionist James Theodore Holly published a series of letters in Voice of the Fugitive suggesting that a convention be held to discuss issues related to refugees and slavery. The paper ran an official call in July. Organizers considered several northern American cities and the Windsor area but ultimately decided that Toronto would be the safest place to meet, although bounty hunters had been known to come there. At the top of their list of objectives: “the immediate and everlasting emancipation of our race from slavery, and a manifestation of gratitude to the government of Great Britain, which has so nobly protected us in the enjoyment of liberty, whenever and wherever, we have stepped upon her soil” (slavery had legally ended in the British Empire by the late 1830s). Other goals included promoting farming-land ownership and education, opposing attempts to send former slaves to colonize Africa, and promoting Black emigration to Canada. The call ended with a warning that Canada was not a place for those looking for such menial jobs as barbering and waiting tables: “We want farmers, mechanics, and professional men, for such will contribute something to the character and elevation of our race.”

The pitch to abolitionist groups drew 53 delegates. The majority were from Canada West; a scattering came from western New York, Ohio, and the Pittsburgh area. Four were white. Among the prominent attendees were Josiah Henson — who had organized the Dawn Settlement, near Dresden, Ontario, and is cited as a possible inspiration for the title character of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — and Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave who established Toronto’s first taxi company.

The three-day convention began at 10 a.m. on September 11 with bureaucratic housekeeping. Each day was divided into three sessions filled with speeches and resolutions. Bibb, who was named president of the convention, gave an opening speech in which he observed that the Fugitive Slave Act had made “the whole of the northern states nothing short of a common hunting ground for kidnappers and man-thieves,” breaking up families and driving free Black people deeper into poverty.

Various committees reported on efforts being made to assist refugees and on the development of Black communities in Canada West, including the recently established Elgin Settlement (which became North and South Buxton). The business committee’s recommendations included emphasizing the importance of education, abstaining from liquor, increasing the circulation of Voice of the Fugitive, and promoting an agricultural life as “the surest means by which to attain respectability, influence, and independence.” The committee also suggested that separate Black churches and schools increased prejudice and should be abandoned as soon as possible. The convention’s final resolution recommended that refugees choose Canada or British colonies in the Caribbean.

Although Holly was unable to attend, he sent a letter, co-written with James T. Taylor, in which the two laid out plans for the North American League, a central authority that would promote Black agricultural communities in Canada and the U.S. and coordinate political and social activities aiding the development of the Black community.

Making a dramatic appearance was Daniel Davis, who had crossed the border the previous weekend. After escaping Kentucky, Davis had been held under the Fugitive Slave Act in Buffalo. One of his captors was jailed for striking him in the head with a stick during the arrest — which likely played a part in the fact that Davis was released via a writ of habeas corpus. A letter, which appeared in various newspapers and was probably forged by pro-slavery supporters, claimed that Davis wanted to return south. At the convention, though, Davis gave no indication that he wanted to go back. “His bandaged head and general appearance gave sufficient evidence of the ill treatment to which he had been subject,” Voice of the Fugitive reported.

After considering the discussions at the convention, Bibb, Toronto saloon owner John T. Fisher, and fugitive slave James D. Tinsley prepared “An address to the Colored Inhabitants of North America,” which was published on Voice of the Fugitive’s October 22 front page. It attacked the hypocrisy of the concept of freedom embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Fourth of July celebrations. Readers were urged to run to freedom in Canada or the Caribbean “with a determination never to be recaptured and carried back into bondage alive.” They reiterated the call for an “agricultural league” to buy farmland for Black people (members would pay an initiation fee of $5 and purchase $50 shares in 10 instalments). “Such an organization would give a new impulse to the Underground Railroad and give profitable employment to thousands of colored persons who never aspire higher than to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for the white man.” They hoped to attract 1,000 Canadian members and 2,000 from New York State.

While emigration to Canada continued throughout the rest of the 1850s, Bibb and Holly’s agrarian dreams went largely unrealized. Other abolitionist leaders, such as Mary Ann Shadd, supported economic self-reliance and the full integration of Black people into Canadian society and opposed segregated agricultural communities. (Proponents of the North American League idea attempted to revive it at an 1853 convention in Amherstburg as a means of promoting business and co-operation between Black people in North America and in the Caribbean.)

Just more than a year after the convention, Bibb published his answer to “Oh! Susanna” on the front page of Voice of the Fugitive. When the Globe reprinted it over 70 years later, its excerpt ended with these lines:

Grieve not, my wife — grieve not for me;

Oh, do not break my heart;

For naught but cruel slavery

Would cause me to depart,

If I should stay to quell your grief,

Your grief I would augment;

For no one knows the day that we

Asunder may be rent

O Susannah!

Don’t you cry for me —

I’m going up to Canada,

Where colored men are free.

Sources: The Black Abolitionist Papers Volume II Canada, 1830-1865, C. Peter Ripley, editor (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); Gathering Place: Peoples and Neighbourhoods of Toronto, 1834-1945, Robert F. Harney, editor (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1985); the April 3, 1851 and December 10, 1923 editions of the Globe; the Spring 2007 edition of Ontario History; and the April 9, 1851, July 30, 1851, August 27, 1851, September 24, 1851, October 8, 1851, October 22, 1851, and November 18, 1852 editions of Voice of the Fugitive.

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