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Emancipation Day

August 1st is Emancipation Day!

Emancipation Day, long celebrated across the British Commonwealth, commemorates the Slavery Abolition Act, passed on August 28, 1833, which meant that by August 1st 1834 slavery was abolished in the British Empire. It has also been long celebrated in Simcoe County. The Spirit of the Age from July 30th, 1862 had the following announcement (partially lost – brackets represent interpolations):

… being the 28th Anniversary [of the emanci]pation by England of the  … slaves, is to be kept by the [pe]ople of this county with more [extraor]dinary signs of rejoicing and thankfulness. They are to meet at Barrie, and among the proceedings of the day have arranged for a religious service, at the conclusion of which a sermon will be delivered by the Rev. Mr. Morgan. In the evening the party will dine together, and afterwards hold a soiree, when several able speakers will address the meeting. The rejoicings are not to be confined to the colored people, but all who feel friendly towards them are desired to join their party. We trust the interesting proceedings will pass off successfully.[i]

            The road to abolition in Ontario passed through Simcoe County and is reflected in our place. The first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (a pre-cursor to Ontario) John Graves Simcoe was a supporter of the abolitionist movement.  By the 1790s the abolitionist movement had been gaining steam across the British Empire. In March of 1793, Chloe Cooley, enslaved to Sergeant Adam Vrooman, was forcefully restrained by Vrooman as he attempted to take her to New York in order to sell her. Cooley resisted so violently that three men were required to restrain her. Peter Martin, a black Loyalist, and William Grisley, a white employee of Vrooman, testified to the violence done to Chloe Cooley. Public outcry at this event allowed Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe to introduce legislation intended to abolish slavery. The legislature was too invested in slavery at the time to allow for full abolition, but a compromise was reached in An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude or An Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. On July 9th 1793, Simcoe gave Royal Assent to the bill. Click here to see our online exhibit and learn more about John Graves Simcoe.

967-110 "'War Clouds' - General John Graves Simcoe, First Governor of Upper Canada 1792” - J.D. Kelly (1862-1958), Globe Printin

967-110 "'War Clouds' - General John Graves Simcoe, First Governor of Upper Canada 1792" - J.D. Kelly (1862-1958), Globe Printing Co. 1910
Image Copyright: Public Domain

            The Act did not free any slaves, but prevented the importation of enslaved people into Upper Canada. Children born to current slaves would be free at age 25 and children of that generation would be free at birth. Similar Acts were tabled in Lower Canada and the Atlantic Provinces, but they were never passed, with those areas taking their cue instead from the central British government.

            One of the most prominent voices for abolitionism in the British Government was William Wilberforce, who was a politician from 1780-1825. He made his first abolition speech in Parliament in 1789. He introduced many abolitionist bills into the House, but in 1807 An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade or the Slave Trade Act was finally passed. The Act did not free current slaves, but was designed to put an end to the trade in slaves in the British Empire. The bill very much paved the way for the Act of 1833. 

            This series of legislation had an impact on Simcoe County settlement. The outbreak of the War of 1812 caused apprehension among black settlers in Upper Canada, who feared an American victory might bring a return to slavery.  As a result, free blacks, and many escaped slaves, volunteered to fight for the British.  One noted militia unit was Captain Runchey's Company for Coloured Men, which saw action at Stoney Creek, Queenston Heights, Lundy's Lane, and St. David's.  

2016-25 Davy Thompson, born in Oro Township in 1863.

2016-25 Davy Thompson, born in Oro Township in 1863.
Image Copyright: Public Domain

            After the War it was in Upper Canada's interests to start settling the area between York (now Toronto) and Penetanguishene. The access to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron was deemed strategically important, particularly in any further encounters with the Americans. In conjunction with this need, between 1819 and 1831 the government of Upper Canada sponsored black settlement along the west side of Concession II in Oro Township, which was called Wilberforce St. after William Wilberforce. Some of the settlers were War of 1812 veterans. Wilberforce St. was named for William Wilberforce. Oro Township joins places like the village of Wilberforce in Freetown Sierra Leone or Wilberforce University in Ohio in commemorating this voice for the abolition of slavery. Click here (link) to see our online exhibit about the Wilberforce Street settlement. 

Barrie Northern Advance , April 15, 1880 - Isaiah Henson (featured in Uncle Tom's Cabin) on a speaking tour in Barrie.

Barrie Northern Advance , April 15, 1880 - Isaiah Henson (featured in Uncle Tom's Cabin) on a speaking tour in Barrie.
Image Copyright: Public Domain

            On August 1st 1834, An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves or the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire. This Act went a long way to making the Canadian provinces a perceived safe haven for refugees fleeing slavery, particularly after 1850, when the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, strengthening a similar 1793 Act, which required the pursuit and capture of enslaved persons anywhere in the United States. This included Northern states, which had long abolished slavery. Monetary compensation for returned slaves also led to the enslavement of a lot of free people. Between 1850 and 1864 black settlement in Canada West (another pre-cursor to Ontario) increased dramatically, as settlers sought the freedom granted by the Slavery Abolition Act.

             The Story of Oro is a history of Oro Township which relies heavily on oral testimonial from the people of area. It paints this picture of Emancipation Day:

Oro negroes celebrated it on August 2nd and on that anniversary for years to come, a big celebration was held. The negroes paraded on the road playing small instruments and singing plantation songs. There was usually a football game, - the 'blacks' against the 'whites'. The negroes were skilled at hitting the ball with their heads and sending it great distances. Their weak spot was their shins, a fact their opponents kept in mind.[ii]

            The final statute we refer to here is the Emancipation Day Act (link), passed by the Government of Ontario in 2008. At that time the province officially recognized August 1st as Emancipation Day across the province. Emancipation Day has been long celebrated in the Caribbean. Celebrations now overlap with the Caribana Festival in Toronto, which always culminates with festivities on the August long weekend. It is also very close in time to Simcoe Day, which is what we call the Monday of the August long weekend around here and in Toronto, commemorating our first Lieutenant-Governor. Later in the month, August 23rd is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.


 BBC. "William Wilberforce (1759-1833)." BBC. 2014. Web. 11 Jul. 2017.

Emancipation Day Act. Statutes of Ontario, c. 25. Ontario. 2008. Web. 11 Jul. 2017.

French, G. E. Men of colour: An historical account of the black settlement on Wilberforce Street and in Oro Township, Simcoe County, Ontario, 1819-1949. Stroud, Ont.: Kaste Books, 1978.

Henry, Natasha L. "Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2013. Web. 11 Jul. 2017.

Henry. Natasha L. "Fugitive Slave Act of 1850." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2014. Web. 11 Jul. 2017.

Henry, Natasha L. "Slavery Abolition Act, 1833." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2014. Web. 11 Jul. 2017.

Hull Museum. "William Wilberforce – the man." Hull Museum Collections. Web. 11 Jul. 2017.

The Story of Oro. 2nd edition. Oro: Oro Historical Committee, 1987. 

[i] Recorded only in "G.E French. Men of Colour: An historical account of the black settlement on Wilberforce Street and in Oro Township, Simcoe County, Ontario, 1819-1949. Stroud, Ont: Kaste Books, 1978. p. 56-57."
[ii] p. 9. 


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