Fugitive slave chapel back on track, pastor insists

It was a rocky year for London’s fugitive slave chapel – considered by some to be the birthplace of the American Civil War – whose preservation project once was viewed as a divinely inspired symbol of community collaboration.

Delays, worries over finances, perceived isolationism and seeming indifference tainted the fugitive slave chapel and put a question mark on its future.

“When I came into it, it was a mess,” said Beth Emanuel church senior pastor Dan Morand of the controversy swirling around the chapel. “We’re pretty excited to pull ourselves out of it and so quickly.”

But four years after it was carefully moved from its original plot of land on Thames Street, one of London’s most significant black heritage landmarks sits wrapped in plastic and is home to several feral cats, its aging infrastructure vulnerable to the elements and deterioration.

Morand, who operates the Urban Haven Project within the church, said the slave chapel project is back on track and a meeting is planned for the new year with members of the chapel’s former’s community steering committee.

Earlier this year, members of that committee voiced their concerns over financial issues involving the church, including money donated by the public for the chapel, after the committee was dismissed by the church’s former pastor Delta McNeish in January.

In October, McNeish, a volunteer who had been the face of the slave chapel for years, resigned from the church after a program for children was cancelled by Rev. Chester Searles, head of the parent church known as the British Methodist Episcopal church.

In a series of emails circulated by McNeish at the time, it was revealed  the church was experiencing financial difficulties, needed repairs and was in arrears with its taxes.

But Morand said those issues have now been resolved and the money for the project is all accounted for.

“We’re totally in the black,” Morand said. “We have money in the bank. This church is very vibrant.”

Now, Morand said the church wants to work closely again with the committee and bring the preservation project forward, with a new permanent roof for the chapel already in the works.

“We want to see it move forward. We’re confident this is the year,” he said. “Once people see things being done, then the public has the responsibility of putting money back into it.”

Back in 2014, the historical fugitive slave chapel, a stopping point for slaves who escaped the U.S. via the Underground Railroad, was rescued from its parking lot fate after Aboutown Transportation threatened to tear it down.

Upper Canada, as Ontario was known then, was a haven for fugitive slaves after slavery was banned within the British Empire in 1833.

When Aboutown’s owner gave organizers only a couple of months to move the historically significant building, both members of the Beth Emanuel church and the London community opened their hearts and wallets to the project.

The chapel is of “stunning” historical significance, according to Joe O’Neil, a local historian who has been involved with the project since the beginning.

Back in 1862, Garland White, an escaped slave and pastor at the slave chapel, penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, asking to be allowed to raise black troops for the war effort.

The letter was included in a Library of America compilation of letters from the American Civil War.

Despite never hearing back from Seward, White served as chaplain for the 28th United States Colored Infantry and was one of only a few black officers serving in the Civil War.

Believed to have been built in the mid-1800s as a house of worship in a low-lying area along the Thames River known as “the Hollow,” it is also believed abolitionist John Brown spoke at the small chapel in 1858 while raising money for his campaign in the U.S.

“The money for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, which is the spark for the start of the American Civil War, was (partially) raised here in London,” O’Neil said. “It was London money from the black community because we had the richest black community in Canada. It gave him the ability to do the raid on Harper’s Ferry. It was the raid in Harper’s Ferry that sparked the Americans in the south . . .  to create a real military force.”

Shadrach Martin, a member of the chapel’s congregation, was the first African-American man to fight in the American Civil War. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery.

“The floor of this chapel was the birthplace of the American Civil War, the birthplace of black troops fighting in the union and the last stop on the Underground Railroad,” O’Neil said.

Somewhere around 1869 the chapel was replaced by a much more grandiose structure known as the Beth Emanuel church, located at 430 Grey St.

On Nov. 14, 2014, Continental Movers transported the old chapel, which had been used as a house before it was abandoned. At its new site, the lofty plan was to restore the chapel and use it as a heritage and research centre to showcase artifacts reflecting the role in London of African-Canadians and the Underground Railroad.

At the time, Rev. Maurice Hicks, assistant general superintendent of the British Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada, said generations of Londoners would be inspired by the chapel.

“They took their journey so many years ago and today we are able to have a piece of that history,” he said “This chapel isn’t just for blacks. It’s for everyone. It’s a community event.”

In 2015, restorations to the chapel surged forward when Blyth architect John Rutledge, who specializes in heritage preservation, was hired to oversee the project.

He has created a restoration plan for an addition to the chapel that would allow for a kitchen, washroom and barrier-free accessibility to allow the small church to be “more usable.” More than a year ago, Rutledge created construction working drawings.

But Rutledge said he’s concerned about the building that had been stripped down of anything that wasn’t original to the chapel.

Wind, rain and snow could cause it to deteriorate quickly.

“Considering we are approaching the fourth winter, I am concerned about its stability,” he said. “We need to start restorations soon.”

He is not the only one concerned.

A recent report to the London and Middlesex Historical Society by the group fired by McNeish, claim the structure is “categorically at risk.”

The group, who will meet with the church in January, voiced fears about the vulnerability of the unoccupied wood building.

“Time is of the essence,” the report reads. “As a very old historic structure, built of white pine and stripped of layers during the early phase of restoration, the historic slave chapel is categorically at risk.”

The fugitive slave chapel project is not the only controversy with which Searles has had to deal with this year.

A Chatham-Kent congregation, which broke with the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 2003, has been fighting with Searles to keep possession of the historic North Buxton church, also started by escaped slaves.

The British Methodist Episcopal Church — which has 10 congregations throughout Ontario — still owns the property in the village of Buxton, about 15 kilometres southwest of Chatham.

They had told the congregation to vacate the church or rejoin the episcopal church.

In September, a judge ruled the congregation could stay in their church until the battle over ownership of the chapel is resolved.

The church plans to take their fight to trial next year.

Slave chapel by the numbers:

  • $250,000:  Cost of renovating the slave chapel
  • $72,000:  Total raised by community for the project, with about $20,000 in a church account and $30,000 in a London Community Foundation account
  • $60,000:  Money donated by the city of London for the project, about $18,000 remains

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