Black History in Owen Sound is not without its questions. One of these queries surrounds who was the first black citizen. This continues to be a cause for debate amongst historians and others who research the Underground Railway's Northern Terminus.
In the 1850s, the community of Owen Sound welcomed many more new residents. Among these newcomers were African Americans who had escaped from slavery in the United States and made their way to Canada via the “Underground Railway”.
Black history in Owen Sound has hitherto been an area which has not been well documented or researched. Consequently, it is difficult to describe with a lot of certainty the events surrounding life in that community.
The debate begins over who was the first African American citizen in Owen Sound. Some attribute this honour to John “Daddy” Hall a flamboyant character in and around town for more than half a century. Still others claim that Thomas Henry Miller, Henry Cousby, Edward Patterson and Thomas Green who arrived in the settlement sometime around 1851 should all be recognized as the first to arrive. One thing is certain, Mr. Miller holds the distinction of being the first minister at the first British Methodist Church in Owen Sound.
My research has led me another who might lay claim to the title of Black History in Owen Sound as the first African American resident of that community. Around 1841-42 Isaiah Chokee arrived in the frontier settlement aboard the Fly, a vessel owned by W. C. Boyd. Chokee worked as a cook and deck hand aboard Boyd’s vessel. After Boyd sold his ship evidence of Chokee’s presence in the area disappears. However, I have been told that it is possible that he moved south of Owen Sound, probably to Holland or Glenelg Townships. Unfortunately, research has not proved or disproved this possibility.
Many researchers of black history in Owen Sound report that this community became a popular destination for African Americans, especially those seeking freedom from slavery. One of the first objectives of the members of African American community was to establish a place of worship. It has been claimed in some circles that John Frost a prominent businessman and community leader in Owen Sound provided his home as a place of worship for those African Americans who first arrived. However, Paula Niall, one of the most knowledgeable of students of black history in Owen Sound suggests that this is possible but that there is no proof to substantiate the claim.
We do know however, that the African American community held church services in three locations before they moved into a permanent structure around 1865. This church was often referred to as “Little Zion” and was a source of pride and strength for the community. This place of worship was located north of 745 2nd Ave. West, a short distance south of the current location of the library. The land was originally owned by Mr. Joseph Maugham and his wife, Mary. On July 24, 1865, they deeded a 25 foot by 40 foot section of their property to the trustees of the Owen Sound British Methodist Church. These trustees included James Henson, Thomas Miller, and Isaac Wilson of Owen Sound and Samuel Barnes and John Edwards of nearby Derby Township.
The frame structure had rounded windows and probably because of a shortage of space there was no parking lot for horse drawn vehicles. It abutted the sidewalk on 2nd Ave. West. The structure remained in that location until 1911 when the congregation purchased the former Westside Methodist Church on 11th Street West. This location still serves the spiritual needs of the community.
A study of black history in Owen Sound reveals what happened to the first African American place of worship in that community. After the congregation moved to their current location “Little Zion” was sold sometime between 1911 and 1922 and moved to a location behind the home of T.I. Thomson at 781 2nd Ave. West where it was used as a garage.
Throughout the early years of settlement in Owen Sound the African American residents of the community eagerly looked forward to one date each year. That day was August 3 which was also known as Emancipation Day. Each year the African American community gathered to together for song, worship and entertainment as they celebrated the anniversary of the official declaration by Britain which freed the slaves in the British West Indies.
In one undated article from an Owen Sound newspaper an Emancipation day celebration at nearby Presque Isle on the west shore of Owen Sound is described. The celebrants travelled to Presque Isle on the steamer Alderson for a picnic. African American residents of the area were not the only ones to enjoy the celebrations that warm August day. Others who attended included W.P. Telford, Rev. Kerr and Rev. Holmes as well as citizens from Owen Sound and Presque Isle.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Paula Niall who allowed me to interview her and provided me with much valuable material about black history in Owen Sound.
A version of this story first appeared in my Owen Sound Sun Times Local History column in September 2000.
For more information about the rich history of Owen Sound please see my book Owen Sound: the Port City published by Dundurn Press.
Charles Rankin, I Presume: October 7, 1840 marked the meeting of Land Agent John Telfer and surveyor Charles Rankin on the banks of the Sydenham River and the founding of Owen Sound.
Black History: Emancipation Day celebrates the abolition of slavery and it continues to be an annual celebration in many locations that were in some way, or another touched by the impact of slavery.
Black History of Owen Sound: Version 2: There is some debate about the first black citizen in the Owen Sound area. Here is more information for your consideration.
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