Given its location just across the Detroit River from Michigan, it isn’t surprising that Amherstburg has a history deeply influenced by events and people just across that water. The town was founded by Americans who fought with the British during the American Revolutionary War.
And later, the town was a principle terminal point of the Underground Railroad, with former slaves reaching freedom by undertaking the harrowing swim across the river. Many of their descendants still live in this area, and in recent years there has been increasing interest in recognizing the importance of Black history to the area, and the contribution of early Black settlers.
To discover this fascinating, but too often overlooked part of our history, visit the North American Black Historical Museum. Artefacts, photos, and first-hand accounts give visitors a sense of the experience of Black slaves from the plantations of the United States to their struggle for freedom and experience in Canada.
The museum was founded on the notion that social, economic and educational issues would be better addressed by a society with greater knowledge and pride in its own history. The museum should increase awareness of Black history, to help future generations claim and develop dignity, strength and purpose of being.
Located in a residential neighbourhood, the museum complex includes several buildings, including a nineteenth-century church and wood cabin. Despite being built in the 1970s, the main museum building fits in perfectly with its neighbours thanks to its classic stone architecture that mimics that of the church.
I visited the museum last winter and, despite learning about the Underground Railroad in school like many children, I learned much more here about what happened to former slaves once they made it to Canada. Despite being an old-school museum of artifacts behind glass panels and text boards (as opposed to interactive exhibits), I thoroughly enjoyed encountering the stories of a few of the impressive individuals who made a name for themselves in their new home.
Here is a small description of a few of these individuals:
• Dr Henry Fitzbutler, born in Amherstburg in 1842: the first Black student admitted to the Detroit Medical College, the first Black graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, and the editor of The Planet (the first successful Coloured newspaper in Kentucky) is this right from the display, if they use the coloured term, fine.
• Dr Martin Robinson Delany, the first Black to graduate from Harvard in medicine, came to Chatham, Ontario in 1856 to open his own medical office and represented Canada at the 1860 International Statistical Congress in England; helped organize 300 Blacks to march from Buxton to Chatham to defeat the area segregationist in a provincial election
• Elijah McCoy: Born in Essex County in 1844, apprenticed with a mechanical engineer in Scotland when he was 15 years old, returning to Canada several years later where he contributed several important engineering inventions to the tune of 100 inventions in 50 years at his own manufacturing company; inspired the expression “The Real McCoy” (and accompanying play
) for one of his machinery lubrication inventions which was considered essential for heavy machinery going forward
Two examples of interesting artifacts are the Watkins Trunk and the Matthew Elliot Lashing Ring. Donated by the descendants of escaped slaves, this camelback trunk travelled to Canada on the Underground Railroad. The family story is that a child was hidden in the trunk during the journey.
Many people are unaware that Africans were used as slave labour in Canada. For example, Matthew Elliot, a United Empire Loyalist and the area's chief slave holder, brought 60 slaves with him from the United States after the American Revolution to nearby Malden.
The slaves worked to clear and farm land which is now the southern portion of Amherstburg. Embedded in wood cut from a tree in Elliot’s yard, this rusty iron ring is believed to be where slaves were tied by the wrists before being whipped.
The museum is connected to the one-room Taylor Cabin, which gives a sense of what life in late nineteenth century Amherstburg would have been like for escaped slaves such as George Taylor and his family.
After touring the museum and cabin, I was given a tour of the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church. No longer operating as a church (although open as a venue for weddings), this National Historic Site building has been left as it would have been in the 1800s when former slaves and free Blacks built it. This single-story, rectangular limestone building has a pitched roof with pointed windows and original interior features such as wainscoting and the v-matched wooden ceiling. My favourite feature was the eye-catching black-and-white diamond design painted on the wood floor at the front of the chapel.
Although small (the museum and the church tour combined take about an hour), this museum is a great addition to a trip to Amherstburg, with its combination of historical and cultural influences, including the important impact of Black history. If you enjoy gospel music, the church holds the annual Freedom Landing Concert in February when Negro Spirituals are performed by the Wilberforce University Concert Choir from Ohio.
Also, this June, there is a Rags and Ragtime event with live entertainment and bbq. Visit the museum’s website
for information on ordering tickets.
Admission is $6.50 for adults and $25 for a family of five. Guided tours are an additional $2 per person. There is a small gift shop with items such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The museum, at 277 King Street, is open in the afternoon Tuesday through Sunday throughout the year.