As I often mention, my historic curiosity knows no bounds and my interests are eclectic, to say the least. This article focuses on what I have learned so far about the Black history of our area. I am sharing a few stories in the hope they will spark others to send me their stories of our local Black history so that I may share them.
My Grandma’s family were Quakers, and it is common knowledge the Quakers played an instrumental part in the underground railroad and were, because of their religious beliefs, staunchly abolitionist.
A Black Friend and minister named William Allen became prominent locally. He had been born enslaved and twice sold on the auction block. On gaining his freedom, he assisted other enslaved Blacks to safety via the underground railroad carried on by Friends.
He is said to have been an eloquent speaker, and he conducted successful evangelistic work among Friends from 1885 to 1898, always, it seems, speaking to packed houses. It was largely due to his splendid work in Newmarket that on the first occasion of the Yearly Meeting of Canadian Friends in Newmarket in June 1895, local Friends decided to rent the vacant Congregational Church on the northeast corner of Botsford and Church streets.
It was felt that the little building on Queen Street was much too small for such an occasion. The delegates came to town, hordes of them they say. Not only did they fill the Friends’ buildings, but they overflowed into the welcoming doors of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Christian churches.
William Allen was a star, and his message was received with a great deal of enthusiasm locally.
The story of Black Canadians is one that has generally been pieced together through a series of oral histories, their stories passed down through the generations, and the documents created by a variety of groups, individuals and official sources.
In an effort to protect their means of arrival in Canada, former enslaved Africans were quite often very secretive.
Mary Louisa Pipkin, who was born around 1820, was a freedom seeker who was to initially settle in Toronto after having escaped enslavement in Maryland around 1853 at the age of 33, along with her husband, Jefferson, who was 43.
Once in Canada, the Pipkins worked to unite with their four enslaved children who had been left behind in the United States. Mary worked as a laundress for the Austin family at Spadina House. Records show she died on March 24, 1888 here in Newmarket, although how she came to this area remains unknown. We do know she and her husband were buried at Necropolis Cemetery in Toronto.
Our early Black ancestors were successful entrepreneurs, and the following portrait illustrates one such success story. One of the essential skills in the early 1800s was the production of charcoal and the only source in this area was from a gentleman named Henry Hisson and his wife, Sara Jane. They lived near Sharon, on Concession 5 in East Gwillimbury.
Hisson had initially found employment with William Cane’s woodworking factory in Queensville. Eventually he was able to purchase 60 acres of land, where he established a charcoal-making enterprise, hauling the finished product into Toronto and surrounding communities.
Charcoal had many uses at the time, from using it to brush one’s teeth to medicinal purposes. It was a major component in the making of iron and gunpowder, manufacturing black ink and storing ice.
In 1979, a huge storage mound of Hisson’s charcoal was found in East Gwillimbury.
The charcoal business was extremely profitable to the Hissons, as he made good use of his horse and wagon to become one of the most affluent men in the small Black community that had grown up around the Cane factory in East Gwillimbury.
Accounts recall a well-mannered gentleman travelling the streets of Newmarket calling out, “Charcoal by the bushel. Charcoal by the peck. Charcoal by the frying pan. Or anyway you lek!”
Author Terry Carter in Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town writes of being given a photograph of an elderly black gentleman found in a house being renovated here in Newmarket. It was dated to the late 19th or early 20th century. Carter speculates the man was one of those employed by William Cane at his foundry.
Perhaps a little background is called for at this point. Slavery essentially was to have ended in Upper Canada in 1834 with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act by the British Parliament. However, it was not until 1865 that slavery was officially abolished south of the border.
Consequently, our colony became a haven for escaped slaves. As I mentioned above, William Cane was operating a mill on the 5th Concession of East Gwillimbury (today it is Kennedy Road) and records show he was a willing employer of a Black workforce.
It is said that he engaged them at a stop on the underground railway, a farm located on the west side of Woodbine Avenue just south of Wellington in Aurora that was being run by the Quakers.
This tiny settlement of escaped slaves had as it founders Hisson and his wife, Taylor Tamar and Edward Provost, all enslaved Blacks who had made their way to the area prior to the American Civil War.
We know from newspaper accounts Tamar had married an Irish lady, built a log cabin on his land, and had offered his home a meeting place for Black lumbermen for their religious and political gatherings.
Just as Hisson had purchased his land from William Cane, so too had both Tamar (10 acres) and Provost (60 acres). I will have to investigate all three of these men further to see what became of them.
Let me end with a couple ‘did you knows.” Did you know that one of the stops on the underground railway was in Richmond Hill on lot 54 on the south side of Yonge Street, just south of Centre Street? I came across a short video by the Richmond Hill Public Library and I found it simply amazing. I have posted it on my YouTube channel so you can check it out if you are interested (https://youtu.be/XSSuVeyW13o).
The enslaved Blacks who escaped to Canada knew very well that their freedom and rights depended on the stability, independence and security of their adopted country and so time after time, when you look at the rolls of the local militias, you will find their names recorded proudly in defence of their adopted country.
I mentioned earlier that the Quakers were abolitionists and their part in the underground railroad. In our area, the Quakers also took on the rehabilitation of the enslaved Africans. There are stories that were passed down to me by my Grandma of local Quakers partitioning a portion of their lands so that the incoming freedome fighters could have a place to live, land to feed themselves and a community to aid in their transitioning to a new life.
In future articles I hope to bring stories of our early Black settlers to you and it is my hope that you out there will send me your stories in aid of my goal. The story is not always pleasant, just or simple, but it certainly deserves to be told.
Unfortunately, much of what we know about the history of our Black ancestors in Ontario can only be found in secondary sources and survives primarily because of the significance the Black community has placed on their history. Let us all place the same importance to their history.
Sources: Article from the Newmarket Era; Articles from the Toronto Star; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Quakers in Canada. A History by Arthur G. Dorland; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; Oral History Interviews by Richard MacLeod****************
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.