Lisa & Jim Gilbert. "The May that John Brown Came." Chatham Daily News [Chatham, Ontario], April 12, 2008.
"It is infinitely better that this generation should be swept away from the face of the earth, than that slavery shall continue to exist."
The man who boldly uttered the preceding statement stepped down, just as boldly, from the train as it steamed to a stop in Chatham on April 30, 1858, and purposely strode towards the offices of the influential black newspaper known as The Provincial Freeman.
Clad in a long black coat and flashing the wild eyes of a Puritan warrior, he drew the slightly furtive sideways glances of many Chatham residents who happened to meet the stranger on his trek downtown. In a small town of 6,000, with at least a third of that population being fugitive slaves, the identity of the mysterious 58-year-old visitor was soon on the lips of most residents.
And the phrase that was soon whispered about town was "It's John Brown . . . you know . . . the abolitionist!" Some residents may have also had the word "murderer" play about their lips as well. Even in this small Canadian town, it was a well-known fact that Brown and his followers had been responsible for the ruthless slaughter, with symbolic broadswords, of five pro-slavery advocates in the Kansas territory.
After visiting with Israel Shadd who was editor of the Provincial Freeman, at the southeast corner of King and Adelaide Street, Brown proceeded on to the home of his good friend James M. Bell at 153 King St. E. where he was to reside during his stay in Chatham.
Ostensibly, Brown was in town to aid in the formation of a Masonic lodge for Chatham blacks. However, the influential blacks in town like Isaac Holden (politician), Alfred Whipper (teacher), Martin Delany (physician) and Israel Shadd knew that Brown had much bigger plans in mind.
The meetings Brown planned over the next week were designed to create a constitution that would in his words "seek to abolish by sword and fire the terrible sin of slavery." In pursuit of this radical action, Brown hoped to assemble in Chatham the groundwork for a fanatical, wild scheme that would see war waged upon southern U.S. plantations, with troops consisting of an ever-growing number of freed slaves that Brown planned to continually increase in his war of liberation.
Chatham was a natural place to hold these meetings of revolution, as there were more blacks within 50 miles of Chatham than any other place in Canada. Many of them were influential leaders in the black community and several of them, 33 to be exact, were on their way to Chatham to hear what the well-intentioned but obsessed abolitionist had to say.
The major characters had been cast, the scene was set and the drama of what was to be known as the Chatham Convention was set to begin on Saturday morning May 8 at First Baptist Church on King Street East.
On Saturday, May 3 and Sunday, May 4, 2008, the 150th Anniversary of John Brown's Chatham Convention will be celebrated. Speakers at that seminar will include David Reynolds who is the author of the fascinating book on Brown entitled John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery (Knopf, 2005); Brown expert Edna Medford from Howard University as well as a number of other activities. For more information, phone 519-352-3565.
Lisa and Jim Gilbert are local historians.