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A edited transcription of a page 3 article in the 22 May 1919 issue of the Simcoe Reformer newspaper.

Darkest Simcoe
Sixty Years Ago

by Walter 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 not transcribed.]


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 release them. 

Afterwards public opinion grew more liberal, colored pupils even admitted to the public schools, and black and white climbed the hill of learning together.


Simcoe always had its full share of odd people, and the colored contingent furnished its quota.

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 his establishment.

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 war.

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 ceased operations.


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 the black.
-- There is no instance of a passenger on its line asking for a return ticket.
-- 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 stirring address.

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 stimulating qualities.

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 day.

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 conclusion."

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 of... [Compiler's Comment: from this point, several paragraphs in the source document were unreadable and not transcribed.] 


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 maxim.


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 similar temperament.

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, generally... [unreadable]


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 Jordan."

Copyright 2016 John Cardiff