Sixty Years Ago
Matheson of Vancouver
To the valuable data
accumulating in the archives of the Norfolk Historical Society, I
desire to add a brief chapter concerning the colored residents of
Simcoe half a century ago.
On this dark subject I may
fairly claim familiarity, for I was born and lived for a third of
a century just across the chromatic line that divided those of a
more dusky hue from their Caucasian neighbors.
My recollections extend
back to about 1853 at which time there were probably 300 colored
souls in the town.
As children we mingled in
play with the pickaninnies, regardless of the race color, or
previous condition of servitude. There was no thought of patronage
or unbending on our part, or theirs in thus meeting on a common
level and I have a latent suspicion... [Compiler's
Comment: from this point, several paragraphs of the source
document were unreadable and therefore
At one time, when public
feeling was less liberal than now, a separate school was
maintained for colored children in a little house on Head Street,
near Chapel Street.
The teacher bore the
favored name of George Washington. He had no watch by which to
note the loss of time so, at his request, my mother (our home
being nearly opposite the school) hung out a white towel at the
hours fixed for assembling and dismissing the pupils. When
time seemed to drag in school, many a little black eye was
strained in our direction to look for the flag of truce that would
Afterwards public opinion
grew more liberal, colored pupils even admitted to the public
schools, and black and white climbed the hill of learning
Simcoe always had its full
share of odd people, and the colored contingent furnished its
Among these was
"George the Barber," who before the Civil War ran a
little barber shop on Peel Street. He was a man of fine physique,
good natured, quick tempered, and always kind to children.
As a kid, I used to go to
George's shop to have my hair cut. After the completion of this
function, my youthful head oiled and perfumed, I usually paid
George three coppers (cents not having come into use) and before I
left the shop he would usually present me with eight or 10
coppers; so as may readily be inferred, I was a steady patron of
George had served in the
war between the United States and Mexico, and his shop was adorned
with numerous highly colored pictures of affrays in that one-sided
No one knew anything of
George's antecedents. If the colored people knew, they held their
peace, but from various remarks dropped and little incidents,
those who had the best opportunity to know believed him to have
been one of the secret agents of the great underground railway,
for George disappeared from Simcoe at the time that noted road
The underground railway
differed radically from any other railway on the continent.
-- No government grant or municipal bonus aided its advent.
-- Its right of way never saw a surveyor's transit, and it did not
run in straight lines; but curved and ended as the emergency of
each trip indicated.
-- Its employees served without pay.
-- It carried no freight.
-- It operated only limited trains, its passengers being limited
to negro slaves escaping from bondage.
-- It collected no fares from passengers.
-- It carried its passengers in but one direction, from south to
north, from slavery to freedom.
-- Its passenger stations were not notable for artistic
appearance, being chiefly the stables, cellars and out-houses of
the good people on the right of way, who believed in freedom for
-- There is no instance of a passenger on its line asking for a
-- All time tables were subject to change without notice.
-- Its southern terminus was south of Mason and Dixon's line; it's northern termini, for it had several, were in Canada, the
good town of Simcoe being one of them.
-- Every passenger carried, in the history of the road's
operations, was a through passenger; no disposition being shown to
stop off on the way to break the journey.
-- As no wages were paid, there were no strikes, and no board of
conciliation was indicated.
-- Trains were run during the night only.
This grand road ceased
operating at the close of the Civil War, one of the fruits of that
great struggle having been the enactment of Congress on the
amendment wiping out the disqualifications of any one by reason of
race, color or previous condition of servitude, thus leaving the
slave free to pursue the inalienable right to life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness.
All the people who engaged
in running this great railway did so at imminent risk to person
and property. While they drew no wages or dividends, most have
doubtless by this time, learned of generous balances to their
credit in the Bank of the Recording Angel.
Different attempts were
made on the part of southern slaveholders to reclaim by law slaves
who had escaped to Canada.
A negro named Anderson was
arrested in Simcoe in the house of Maria Parker, a negro woman,
and an attempt made to take him back to slavery. Some
liberty-loving citizens of Simcoe had him taken before the Court
of Queen's Bench at Toronto, on a writ of Habeas Corpus. The
result of the trial was the release of Anderson, the judgment of
the court enunciating the splendid doctrine that the moment a
slave steps on British soil he becomes a free man.
A case of somewhat the
same nature arose when Jim Lewis, a colored man, who for years had
been the principal village barber, was arrested by a United States
detective and a local constable on a charge of murder committed in
a southern state.
The case was taken to
Toronto under Habeas Corpus proceedings. It developed at trial
that in attempting to escape from slavery, Lewis had killed his
master, who was obstructing his flight.
The court ordered Lewis'
release, holding that under the circumstances disclosed, the
homicide was justifiable, wherein the judge was certainly "a
Daniel come to judgment."
Probably the leading
colored citizen at Simcoe was Isaac Darsey, a quick, level-headed,
God-fearing man. He and his brother Allen leased and worked the
Judge Salmon farm just beyond the Lynn River, where it is spanned
by the Hog Bridge. Sparking waters were enhanced by the
contributions from the distillery and slaughter house a few
hundred feet upstream.
Like many of the Simcoe
negroes, he came from Virginia. He was a leader in the colored
church, and his son, Charles Wesley Darsey, was educated at the
Simcoe Public School and following the example of his great
namesake became a preacher of some note.
Mr. Darsey owned the
finest house occupied by any colored person in town.
His counterpart was Dick
Plummer, who was a strapping, good natured individual, who
followed the fashion so prevalent in those days, in looking upon
the wine when it is red -- a case of "rouge et noir."
He was easily the leading
colored orator of the place, and having a mellow voice, a vivid,
not to say, tropical imagination, he would deliver quite the
One of his idiosyncrasies,
when intoxicated, was that he was a Scotsman. As he walked
along the street in such an exhilarated condition, he would shout
"Caledonia" and proclaim himself a Caledonian.
Some attributed this
hallucination to the fact that he imagined that the people of
North Britain were, like himself, addicted to "a wee drapple
o't." Others attributed it to the fact he was want
to drop a little Scotch snuff into his beverage to increase its
On the first of August the
colored folks celebrated Wilberforce Day, the anniversary of the
freeing of England's slaves in the West India islands, and on such
a day Dick Plummer shone in all his glory as the orator of the
On such festal days a
grand open air dinner was served, and the swell colored waiters
from the Kirby House in Brantford, used to come over to help their
Simcoe friends, and pitch plates and carve in a way that rendered
them the lions of the day.
Henson Johnson was a fine,
quiet, honest citizen, as black as the night. He was one of the
chief black marble pillars of the church.
Speaking of the church let
me say that with few exceptions the colored people of Simcoe were
church goers, the exciting nature of the services serving as a
stimulus to their fervid African natures.
They were a well-dressed
congregation, each one giving his or her trunk a half-holiday to
wear all the grand clothes at church.
As our house was nearly
opposite the church, I am qualified to say that the services were
long and earnest -- and well sustained, sometimes reaching to the
by-gone Presbyterian stage of fifteenthly and lastly, with
"another thought, "and "still one more word of
During the sermon, did the
minister wax too exciting, then some one of the ladies, generally a
mulatto, would begin to drum with her feet on the floor... [Compiler's
Comment: from this point, several paragraphs in the source
document were unreadable.]
... One day something over 50
years ago, Hank carried as one of passengers George Battersby,
just out of his apprenticeship as a painter and on his way to the
fabled gold fields of California, then attracting people from all
over the world.
Hank said "George, if
you make a fortune in California will you bring me a gold
watch?" When George returned about three years later, a
wealthy man, he presented Hank with a costly watch.
Bill Jackson was one of
the successors of Hank Power as driver of the Paris stage. He was
a smart, bright, accommodating driver. No matter how slow the rate
of progress had been from Paris to Simcoe, as it approached Main
Street, Bill brought his horse team in with a wild rush, cracking
the whip, and rattling the stage. At that moment Bill had glory
enough for one day.
Hank Workman was a
good-natured, oily philosopher, who worked when he had to. His
unusual suppleness of limb secured for him the [nickname] of
"Lingle Joints," his sponsor being a Scotsman.
Like Robin Hood he was
extremely hospitable, and like that gentleman he levied on the
rich to give.
He had [invited] his
friends to a supper and dance at his residence. The larder running
a little low, like that of Mother Hubbard, and being a son
Comment: from this point, several paragraphs in the source
document were unreadable and
Old Horace was one of the
odd characters of Simcoe, a silent somber, weird personality. He
looked as though he might have entered from some dark African
jungle. He was taciturn and of a savage temper, and people found
out it was safer to let him alone.
He teamed the woods and
fields gathering herbs and samples from which he compounded
remedies which he peddled. Some of the older negros hinted with
hated breath that Horace was a "Voodoo" man, and it was
whispered in some of his remedies besides the herbs there entered
uncanny things, lizards' heads, bats' wings, toads' eyes... [unreadable]
Steve Parker, son of old
Maria Parker, was a handsome, good-natured fellow, broad at chest
and stalwart of limb, for a good while the champion wrestler of
the neighborhood, black and white going down before him.
Old man Deggs was as black
as the boots of the Earl of Tartarus, and fate made him a champion
whitewasher -- and a good one.
His son, David Deggs, a
particularly bright, industrious young man, was for years one of
the landmarks at the Norfolk House under George Battersby regime.
He was foully murdered by some young men in Brantford, his only
offense being that he was a high spirited young fellow who stood
up for his rights.
Wesley Lero, unknown to
himself, was a philosopher, who would work as a last resort.
Leaning over a stick of wood and resting on his bucksaw, he
imparted to me part of his philosophy of life, which was that
"A man should not exhaust his physical strength." I will
do him the justice to say, that unlike many, he followed his
Harrison Hall for years
ran a barber shop and supplemented the gains from that
establishment by playing poker. He was a genial, copper-colored
person, who took the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunate
calmly, and his conversation replete with... [unreadable]
For years he had the
contract for carrying the mail sack to the depot, in which work he
was abetted by a slow old horse hitched to a buckboard.
A prominent and literally,
striking figure in Simcoe was "Old Clarissa," a tall,
lithe, muscular woman, a hard worker, but given at times to
over-indulgence in the flowing bowl.
Heredity made her a fighter,
and environment rendered it easy to gratify this leaning, for in
her neighborhood were some, both African and not, who were of
When it became necessary to
take "Old Clarissa" to the lock-up, no less than two
constables were tasked with this arduous undertaking. While under the stimulus of
liquor and anger she could, to use a local phrase, lick her weight in
wild oats, and by the time she was lugged to her cell she was,
I recall many more of these
colored people but in the limit of a sketch like this, one cannot give
the data of a town directory.
Looking back over the
vista of 60 years, I must say I do so with most friendly
recollections of these old neighbors.
If some worshipped at the
shrine of Bacchus, they could plead the example of many of the
leading business men of the community.
Taken as a whole, they were
law-abiding citizens, well-behaved, civil and accommodating.
Considering that nearly all of the first generation had, but a few
years before, emerged from slavery, their general character and
record were wonderfully good.
I bear them nothing but good will,
and hope I will meet them all again, including their sisters,
their cousins and the black aunts, in the place mentioned in one
of their favorite melodies, "On the other side of