The Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum will hold its 14th Annual John Brown Festival May 3-4 in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, 48 miles from Detroit.
Chatham-Kent was the place free black people and escaped slaves fled before the Civil War in order to be out of the reach of slave catchers. Free blacks feared slave catchers would arrest them and place them in slavery.
The festival is named in honor of John Brown, the abolitionist, who arrived in Chatham Canada West, as it was then known, on April 30, 1858, to plan his raid on Harpers Ferry, a military arsenal in Virginia, Hilary Blair Newby, the museum’s executive director, tells The NorthStar News & Analysis.
Brown held a convention in Chatham because of the the town’s affluent black population and the city’s proximity to other black settlements, including Buxton and Dawn.
The convention was to draw up a new constitution for settlement of slaves in the United States. The plan, which was formalized at the First Baptist Church, included an attack on Harpers Ferry to arm slaves and cause a slave uprising. The raid on Harper’s Ferry occurred on Oct. 17-18, 1859.
“We want visitors to share in the rich history of Afro-Canadians,” Newby said.
At this year’s festival, Adrienne Shadd, a Toronto-based writer, curator and editor, will give a speech on black education in Chatham.
Anthony Sherwood, an award-winning Canadian actor, director and producer also will show a 45-minute movie produced by his film company. It is titled “100 Years of Faith,” and it is about the first black Canadian church, which opened in Montreal in 1907, Newby said. The late jazz pianist Oscar Peterson grew up in the church, which is located in Montreal’s Little Burgundy district.
In addition, the festival will hold a “Walk Back in Time,” an event during which visitors will meet Chatham-Kent’s black historical figures. Adrienne Shadd is a descendant of Abraham Doras Shadd, who was first Afro-Canadian elected to public office. Voters elected him counselor, or council member, to serve on the Raleigh, Ontario, council in 1859.
Although Chatham-Kent’s black population has gotten smaller as individuals have moved away to pursue jobs and education, at one time 1,700 of its 4,050 residents were black. The town was once known as “The Colored Man’s Paris” because it was far enough away from the United States to discourage slave hunters.
The town also was known as the “Black Mecca” because prosperous blacks moved there to live.
“At one time, Chatham Canada West had six black doctors,” Newby said.
The Chatham-Kent Historical Society recently changed its name to Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum after it received an official designation as a museum, allowing the organization to receive annual funding through the Community Museum Operating Grant Fund. The fund is operated through the Ministry of Tourism Culture and Sport.
“By being a museum, we can attract tourists. As a historical society, people will think we are there for research,” Newby said.
Some former Chatham–Kent residents are very famous.
Notable residents include Dr. Martin Delaney, who was one of the first three black men accepted to Harvard Medical School. Delaney lived in Chatham Canada West from 1856 to 1863. While in Chatham, Delaney was able to stop the Cholera epidemic by instituting a sanitation program.
He returned to the United States during the Civil War, where Delaney recruited thousands of black men for the Union Army. During the war, he was promoted to major, the highest military rank a black man could achieve at the time.
Another famous resident was Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who was the first woman to own and publish a newspaper in the United States and Canada. In 1853, Shadd Cary founded The Provincial Freeman, a weekly newspaper, which operated until 1857.
When her husband died in 1860, she returned to the United States and attended Howard University Law School. Shadd Cary graduated from law school in 1883 at the age of 60. Her house on Washington, D.C.’s “U” Street is listed in the U.S. Register of Historic Places.
The most-recent famous resident is Ferguson Jenkins, who grew up in Chatham-Kent, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 after pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and the Texas Rangers.
Chatham Kent is also the home of Artis Shreve Lane, a famous painter and sculptor. Lane painted portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and President Ronald Reagan. Actor Cary Grant discovered Lane.
In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled Lane’s bronze statue of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Lane’s work was the first sculpture by a black woman in the U.S. Capitol.
The musem’s link is www.CKBlackHistoricalSociety.org. The museum’s facebook page is Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum. The telephone number is 519-352-3565.