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Wilberforce Street

History

Town site photo

The African Episcopal Methodist Church

©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko

In 1807 Great Britain took the major step of officially abolishing the slave-trade. The campaign was spearheaded by a British politician named William Wilberforce, whose name became synonymous with abolitionist causes. Thirty-five years earlier the British government had decreed that whenever a slave landed in England, he automatically became a free man. With the act finally passed, the British navy had a new mandate from 1807 onwards - that of hunting down slave-traders.

During the war of 1812 the Canadian forces included one contingent comprised of native Indians and several others comprised of black men. Of the latter group, some of the men came from the British colonies and others headed northward from the United States. Many joined the York Militia and the Glengarry Light Infantry. There was also a contingent known as "Captain Runchey's Company of Coloured Men," stationed in the Niagara area along the border.

According to the practise of the times, it was customary for the British to award generous land grants to retired soldiers, particularly those who had served in combat. Following the war of 1812, it was considered strategically necessary to secure and protect the lands surrounding the Georgian Bay.

Shortly thereafter an area of land covering the Penetanguishene Road and the first concession road to the east was surveyed into 100-acre lots and designated as a supply route. The lots along the Penetanguishene Road were offered to retired white officers and soldiers and the lots on the eastern concession, originally named the 7quot;Military Route," were offered to the black soldiers. This covered the threefold purpose of colonizing the area with trained, experienced soldiers who could be called upon if needed, rewarding those who had fulfilled their military duties, and carrying out the British initiative of encouraging settlement of a black community in British North America.

The job of establishing the black settlement fell to Sir Peregrine Maitland, who was Lieutenant Governor at the time. In addition to rewarding the veterans, Maitland was also committed to building a colony for fugitive American slaves who were fleeing north.

In 1819 grants were issued to 15 black settlers. By 1826 that number had grown to 23. The "experiment" was anything but a success. In 1831 it was noted that only nine grantees were still in possession of their lots. The others either failed to take possession or had left the area. However the British were not ready to give up - quite the contrary! The program was expanded to offer 50 acres on Wilberforce Street to all "Friends of the Corp. of Colour." Actually only one group of lots was located on Wilberforce Street. The remainder were scattered throughout Oro Township. Unlike other black settlements in Canada, this program was different in that it was sponsored by the government. Nonetheless the settlement became known as "Wilberforce Street."

When the township of Oro was surveyed in 1820, the second and third concessions were set aside for the settlement of escaped slaves. The lines ran north from present village of Shanty Bay. These programs were somewhat more successful. Although exact numbers can only be estimated, according to census records there were 97 black residents, or somewhere between 20 to 30 families, living in the township by 1831.

On August 2, 1834, slavery was officially abolished in Upper Canada. For many years it was assumed that most of the black community were former slaves who arrived through the underground railway, however recent research seems to dispel that. From 1830 to 1845, with the help of a British agent, Colonel Edward George O'Brien, an estimated 20 new families settled in the area around Wilberforce Street.

Overall the new settlers were not successful as farmers, although as always there were exceptions. Several reasons have been cited. Many of the settlers came from warm southern climates and had no knowledge of farming traditions in Canada. Also very few came from a tradition of farming, where practises had been handed down from one generation to another. Most of the farms were established on the north end of the road and east where the land was more suitable, however some were located on the south, where the land was somewhat swampy. Overall the men did not adapt naturally to farming however it was said they made excellent farmhands and labourers. Many were able to find plenty of work doing logging and at farm work harvest time.

The settlers adapted will with their neighbours who were primarily Scottish and British. Interestingly in 1843 the first will probated in Simcoe County was from one of Wilberforce Street settlers, George Darkman.

The black community members were also eager to establish their own institutions. Reverend Ari Raymond, a white man from Boston, was sent by the Congregational Church in 1838. Services for both blacks and whites took place in his home. He also helped the black community form their own congregation.

Between 1845 and 47 the Reverend Richard Sorrick, a former slave and brilliant orator, took over. He found a number of the community members were doing well but a large number were having difficulties adapting to a life of farming. Although his knowledge in this area was limited he helped as best as he could. Then he departed for Hamilton, taking a large number of the settlers with him.

The community declined following Sorrick's departure however a sufficient number still remained to warrant the building of a new church. That goal was realized in 1847 with the purchase of an acre of land from Noah Morris, one of the early black settlers, for the token amount of one pound.

The African Episcopal Methodist Church was built on the northwest corner of Lot 11, Concession 4 and opened in 1849. Since many of the members came from the United States, it seems likely the name originated from the American African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church was essentially "British Methodist" with services open to both blacks and whites. Morris' son, John Nelson, later donated 1/4 acre on his property for the establishment of a school, SS No. 6. In 1855 both father and son served as school trustees.

The church itself was of log construction and covered with wood siding on the outside. It is thought the siding was added afterwards. The original floor was dirt but was later covered with wood planks. Heating came from a large box stove and additional lighting was provided by coal oil lamps that were placed in hooks along the walls. Since the congregation couldn't afford a full-time minister, itinerant pastors filled the gap. These included Reverend William Banyard from 1859 to 63, followed by an Anglican, Reverend J.H. Harris.

The establishment of cemeteries is a bit vague. A burial ground is located just behind the church. There is further reference to a burial ground on Lot 45, Concession 4, donated by Benjamin Turner in 1864. Burials reportedly took place in that cemetery beginning in 1858 or earlier. James and Mark Bush were listed as trustees for this cemetery on behalf of the British Methodist Episcopal Church. Another plot located on lot 12, Concession 4 was sold to the church by Peter Hero for use as a cemetery. This property at one time was owned by someone named Balfe and is referred to as "Balfe's Cemetery." Another reference cites an area one kilometre south of the village of Edgar on the west side of Line 4. Several lists have been compiled into a master list of all known burials that took place in these cemeteries. The graves are unmarked.

Like all communities this one was not without its cast of legendary and interesting characters. Joe Smith, an expert lime burner, was often hired to determine whether the lime was sufficiently burned. When the big day came he would arrive dressed in a long black coat and stovepipe hat, befitting his reputation as an expert. Davy Thompson, a scrap iron dealer, was a sought-after entertainer who sang and played the Jew's harp. In Pioneer Papers the story is told of one Jenny Jackson, a portly lady, who single-handedly took on a bear in a hand-to-paw battle after she caught it trying to steal a pig from her sty. Luckily for Jenny, she won. Emancipation day was regularly celebrated with great fanfare on August 2.

Census figures from the early 1860s show the population had grown somewhat until the 1870s, when it began to slip downward again. Following the departure of Reverend Harris, the church once again found itself without a minister. This time services were taken over by a member of their own congregation, Mark Bush.

Bush was born in Oro Township in 1848. By the early 1870s he and his wife Mary were living on a small farm on Lot 11, Concession 6, and raising their family. Bush also performed a variety of other jobs including wood-cutting, and slaughtering pigs for his neighbours. He was described as a small, gentle man, who was well liked and highly respected by both the black and white communities. Bush was a church elder who took over the thankless task of conducting services as a lay minister after the regular minister departed. Over time he became known both in the church and to the community at large as "Elder Bush." He kept the church alive for many years and performed services possibly as late as 1900 when regular services at the church ceased for good.

Over the remainder of the 19th century the black community in Oro Township continued to dwindle. By 1871 the population had dropped to 79 and by 1901 to about half that amount. Likewise church membership was also on the decline, dropping from 22 to nine between 1878 and 1881. A number of reasons for the decline have been given but upward mobility appears to have been one factor. For the most part the men were particularly skilled at labour. There was a great deal of work in the lumber camps during those days and it is thought many gravitated to that area. In later years many moved to the cities were they were able to find well paying, secure jobs with the railways.

By the early 1900s the entire community had pretty much dissipated. The last surviving descendant of the Oro settlers, James Dixon (Jimmy) Thompson, grandson of one of the original settlers passed away in 1949. The funeral service was conducted by his stepson, the Reverend Bennie Gearo, whom he had helped educate.

By 1916 the Oro church property was classified as "abandoned," although it appears anniversary services were held there annually until the late 1930s. Over the years the property gradually began to deteriorate. In 1945 a committee headed by W.R. Best and E.C. Drury, a former Ontario premier, was formed to begin restoration on the church. Drury was a particularly enlightened choice. Hd had served as Township Clerk in Simcoe County for many years and was also a respected amateur historian and writer. Over the years he had spent a great many hours digging through township records for information on the Wilberforce Road settlers and by then was considered somewhat of an authority on the topic.

The restoration project, which included the erection of a stone cairn, took place over a two-year period. It was completed in 1949, 100 years after the church was built. Further repairs and renovations took place in 1956 and 1980. In 1974 the property was transferred to the township of Oro under the cemeteries act. In 1981 the church was badly vandalized by a group of individuals who rammed it with two stolen trucks. Fortunately the damage was repaired. In 1987 the floor, which had rotted badly, was replaced by a group of volunteers.

An historical plaque that marks the beginning of the road stands at the first concession and Ridge Road in Shanty Bay. The church itself is located just west of the village of Edgar. Although simple, the church is a solemn, dignified building typical of the pioneer spirit.

The cemetery can be found just behind the church. The graves are unmarked but they can be easily discerned when the foliage is low. There are two cairns just outside the church. One dates from 1949 and lists the names of the church members. A second cairn was laid the by township of Oro in 1999 during a ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the church. The remainder of what was once Wilberforce Street is now a combination of farms, urban sprawl and recreational areas.