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The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project
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By George McNeish


This is a grainy print of the picture and caption that appeared in the London Advertiser May 8, 1926


The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project (FSCPP) is a community-based effort to save the former African Methodist Episcopal Church (1848-1869) that was popularly known at the "Fugitive Slave Chapel."

The History:

In November 1787, Richard Allen and a number of other black Methodists arrived at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend Sunday services. They were directed toward a newly built seating gallery, and mistakenly sat in its "white" section. During a prayer, white ushers pulled the black worshippers to their feet and demanded that they sit in the "proper" section. Humiliated, Allen — a former slave from Delaware who had joined the evangelical Wesleyan movement because of its work against slavery and who eventually became a licensed Methodist preacher - and several others left the church at the prayer's end. "They were no more plagued with us in the church," he later said.

In 1784 Richard Allen purchased a blacksmith shop with his own money and converted it into a storefront church. Methodist Bishop Frances Asbury named it the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thus the African Methodist Episcopal Church was born.

April 16, 1816 the African Methodist became legally independent of the Main body of Methodist. Richard Allen became its first Bishop after the elected bishop Daniel Coker declined the position.

London, Ontario

In 1847, land was bought for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in London. At that time it was also referred to as the Fugitive Slave Chapel. The building was located at 275 Thames Street and the congregation worshipped there from 1848 to 1869. It became the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856.

After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it became increasingly dangerous for African Canadian church officials to travel to the annual conferences of the AME Church in the United States. Desiring a more accessible church government closer to home members of the AME Church in Canada began to lobby for local self-government of their church. In 1856 they succeeded and, anxious to underscore allegiance to their new homeland they named it the British Methodist Episcopal Church. A former AME minister, the Reverend Willis Nazery, was elected as its first bishop. The BME Church continued the growth begun under the AME, establishing congregations not only in Upper Canada but also in Nova Scotia, Bermuda, the West Indies, and British Guiana (Guyana).

The London congregation built the present white-brick, Gothic Revival structure at 430 Grey Street between 1868 and 1871. In later years, the building was raised for the construction of a basement. On June 6th, 1983 it was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

In the mid 1800's the Underground Railroad brought many fugitive slaves from the Southern USA to London, Ontario. Many of these had been members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1847 the congregation of Beth Emanuel AME built their first Church building giving the new immigrants a place to worship. Thus the Church helped the fugitives to settle into their new community. The horrors these people lived through we can't even imagine.

Not everyone who escaped made it to freedom. Many were recaptured and many died in the effort to become free. Yet death was better than what they had to face in slavery.

Punishment for any perceived shortcoming could be very severe, and should it cause death, the slave master was completely free of any legal repercussions. If a slave stopped for a second to stretch his or her back while working in the cotton fields, a severe flogging may follow, or a slave may be whipped just for the amusement of his master. Slaves were considered as livestock and breeding would be done for the advantage of the master. Sometimes he would himself act as the stud. Again, since he owned the slave he could pretty much do as he pleased. Laws were in place to protect the slave masters. They were legally entitled to beat a slave to death, but a death sentence could be imposed on any slave who even caused a slight injury to his master. Now perhaps we can get a glimpse of the emotional and psychological state to these refugees that came to London in the mid 1800's. Here they face prejudice and discrimination. They were still considered second class citizens, but at least they were free. Although the law provided for equal rights, the legal system was run by whites who were often prejudiced. Your guilt or innocence was often determined by your colour.

In the mid to late 1800’s, Beth Emanuel Church was a place where fugitive slaves could meet in freedom. They brought industry and professions to London and were a big part of shaping the London we see today. After 165 years, Beth Emanuel Church is still a meeting place for those who want to be free.

The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project

It was the first Black church in London, Ontario, Canada, and it provided refuge for escaped slaves from the United States. The chapel was more than just a church. In addition to being a safe haven for escaped slaves, it was pillar in London's early Black community, and it was a centre for abolitionist activities. As a result of its prominence in London's history, the London Public Library designated it a heritage property, and the City of London labelled it a "priority one" heritage building. Despite its prominence however, the property has not been designated a heritage property by any government, and it is therefore not protected under the Ontario Heritage Act.

To prevent the chapel's demolition and preserve it, a collaborative of individuals and groups from London's Black, heritage/ historic, and SoHo communities initiated the FSCPP. The project focuses on moving the Fugitive Slave Chapel from its present location to a lot next to the Beth Emmanuel Church (the current home of the chapel's congregation). In its new location, the chapel will be used to preserve its history and facilitate research and education about the underground rail road and related subjects. The centre will also include a Black history library and a small showroom or museum for Black historical artefacts. An addition is planned to further facilitate work of the Chapel and house outreach programs started by Beth Emanuel Church to alleviate suffering, and help those enslaved by poverty, addictions, or behaviour problems. The exact plans are still in development and the final product will depend on the generosity of the public.

In 1848 the Church was built to help those fugitives who escaped from the horrors of slavery. Much spiritual and psychological healing was needed. Fugitives arrived in London with very little and, mainly through the aid of previous fugitives, established a new life style for themselves. They all worked hard and worked together to beat the odds of facing a society that was opposed to them. They became some of the most prosperous citizens of the city.

The project requires commitments from individuals and groups willing to serve as volunteers or donate funds. The FSCPP team is also seeking donations from organizations and businesses as well. With the contributions from individuals, groups, organizations, and businesses, the FSCPP's team will be able to return the chapel to its rightful place as a piece of Canada's heritage, a space for charitable efforts, and a resource for the London community. The Fugitive Slave Chapel was instrumental in saving fugitives from a horrific life of slavery. It is now up to us to save the Chapel.

As of November 2013, plans are under-way to start construction of a basement and suitable foundation for the Chapel. More money is needed to get the building moved this fall. Repairs to the old building and the adding of a suitable addition that will allow the old chapel to maximize its benefit to London will cost much more and final figures are not yet known. The final product should be a great boost to the economy of the SoHo district and attract tourism to the area. Besides being an educational and spiritual centre, it will be used to help the economically challenged to get back into the workforce and will therefore relieve the pressure on the welfare system. It will also strive to teach family values and educate parents who will learn parenting skills and therefore reduce the need for correctional facilities in the future. Originally the Chapel was used to help those who were running from slavery in the South. Now those who are enslaved by poverty, addictions of behaviour issues can find help to escape and become productive members of society.

For more information or to offer your assistance with the Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project please visit www.fscpp.ca/fscpp.html or email info@fscpp.ca . You can also contact: Beth Emanuel BME Church by phone at 519.433.4311 or by email at bethemanuel.ca/history.html.