For whom the Buxton Bell tolled

Whenever a fugitive from slavery arrived in the black settlement of Buxton, Ont., by way of the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Canada, a large bell housed in the community’s Mission church would ring out in joyous celebration.

At the ceremony on March 25 to mark the opening of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, a replica of the historic Buxton Liberty Bell will be rung. This act at the inauguration of York’s new institute devoted to studying, preserving and promoting the history of the black diaspora will be rife with significant symbolism.

Right: Replica of the Buxton Liberty Bell. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration.

“The bell is a powerful symbol of freedom,” says Professor Paul Lovejoy, the director of the Tubman Institute and a research professor in York’s Department of History. “The whole community could hear it when someone arrived safely in Buxton,” he says, noting also that it was also rung “every morning and night in the community so that people would stop and pause and remember those who are still in slavery.”

The original 570-pound bell was presented “by the Coloured Inhabitants of Pittsburgh” in November 1850 to the inhabitants of the Elgin settlement, also known as Buxton, as a “lasting memorial…that will call your children to the house of instruction,” according to the letter that accompanied the gift. “When the bell, with its solemn tones, calls you to the House of God,” said the letter, “remember your brethren who are in bonds; and let your prayer ascent to God, that he may, in his own good time, break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.”

“We have many artifacts and many ways to tell this important chapter in North American history,” says Bryan Prince, the vice-president of the Buxton Historical Society, which administers the Buxton Museum. “But, for me, this bell is the most important symbol that we have to tell the story of the Underground Railway, the horrors of slavery, the triumph of escape and the coming to a country where they can begin again.” Prince is a sixth-generation descendant of Buxton settlers who escaped slavery and a board member of the Tubman Institute.

The Buxton settlement was founded by Reverend William King. An Irish-born educator and missionary, King was introduced to the anti-slavery movement and ideas of the abolitionists, such as British MP Thomas Fowell Buxton, while studying at Glasgow University.

After he came to possess 15 American slaves through an inheritance and purchases, he took them to a site in Kent County, near Chatham, Ont., where he had organized a group of anti-slavery sympathizers from around the province to acquire nearly 9,000 acres of land for the purpose of establishing a haven for blacks. This investment group, called the Elgin Association, sold plots of land to King’s former slaves and other black settlers at low prices.

The community grew with the influx of individuals who escaped through the Underground Railroad that brought blacks to Canada from the United States, where slavery existed until the 1860s. Settlers built houses, farmed and adhered to strict rules. Within a few years the community became known for the high academic standards of its school, which under King’s supervision, taught the classics, including Latin and Greek, and prepared students for careers in politics, medicine and law.

At the heart of the settlement, on the grounds of King’s farm, was the Mission, where the Buxton Bell was hung until it was erected in the steeple of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church after it was built in 1858. The bell remains there to this day and it still rings to call the faithful to prayer.

Its inaccessible location makes it difficult for visitors to the church to see this important historical symbol so about a year ago, a replica was made. The project was supported financially by a  Community Builders program grant  through the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration and the Buxton Historical Society.

Brett Davis, a sculptor in Newmarket, Ont., was commissioned to work on the project. Using photographs and measurements of the original bell, he completed the replica in January 2007 — just in time for it to be put on display at Queen’s Park to commemorate this year’s Black History Month.

Left: Lorna King, president of the Project of Advancement of Childhood Education, and her grandson, Deon, admire the replica of the bell at Queen’s Park. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration.

“I was one of a small group of people who had been fortunate to see the original bell on several occasions,” says Prince. “Each time upon seeing it, I would get a lump in my throat, and feel overwhelmed with emotion. Now that we have this replica, thousands of visitors to the Museum each year will be able to appreciate its beauty and experience the feeling that comes with being in the presence of something extraordinary,” he says.

Before the replica of the original bell is returned to the Buxton Museum, it will be brought to York for the Tubman Institute’s opening ceremony.

“The significance rests in the opportunity for the bell to be rung symbolically at this event in recognition of all those who have successfully shed the bonds of slavery,” says York’s Lovejoy. “The Tubman Institute is committed to bring about the end of slavery and the emancipation of people from injustice. This is the message that will be conveyed,” he says.

“I am proud that we are building institutions in Canada, like the Buxton Museum and the Tubman Institute at York that can tell the story of our past,” says Lovejoy. “It is a collective past that includes all peoples.”

This article was written by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.