The Story of Walter Hawkins: African Canadian Lectures as an Act of Resistance
Ideas of resistance, black independence, and black agency have resonated with black communities in North America long after the Civil War’s end. While the American Abolitionist movement was most active from the 1840s to the 1860s, resistance from African Americans and Canadians in the decades following the Civil War was paramount to maintaining their new freedom. This is exemplified by Walter Hawkins, a former slave who self-emancipated to southern Ontario, Canada in the mid-19th century, becoming a British Methodist-Episcopalian preacher and bishop. Near the end of his life, Hawkins sponsored religious lectures in Chatham, Ontario, which were attended by the British Methodist Church (B.M.E.) community. The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society Museum has a documented invitation to a Hawkins lecture about slavery, from the summer of 1883. While there is very little known about the object in the CKBHS archive, Hawkins’ life has been better documented. To explore different forms of African Canadian resistance in the decades after the Civil War, this essay uses Hawkins’ story as an historical anchor, with the lecture invitation acting as the story’s climax. Using his narrative as a brief microhistory, this essay will argue that the lecture invitation represents how African Canadians reclaimed ideas of faith, public discourse, debate, and intellectual conversation as a form of resistance in a post-slavery world. To understand how slaves were refused access to education and these intellectual ideas, the treatment of slaves will be explored through Hawkins’ childhood. To understand how Christianity affected black resistance and the abolitionist movement, faith will be explored through Hawkins’ time in Philadelphia and New Jersey – after he ran away from slavery. To understand how resistance against racism was needed in Canada after the Civil War, race-thinking and segregation will be explored through Hawkins’ time in Canada. These pieces will provide the necessary historical context to understand the importance of the lecture invitation as a form of resistance.
In Georgetown Maryland, 1809, Walter Hawkins was born into slavery.[i] Christianity was a normal part of Hawkins’ childhood. Slave preachers came to his plantation regularly and gave sermons which perpetuated the idea of slave subjugation. The sermons focused on how slaves should obey and never steal from their masters.[ii] Slave owners wanted children like Hawkins to view themselves as unintelligent and subservient, using preachers to shape that perception.
Christianity had a crucial and controversial role in slave life. Sometimes Christianity was used by slaves to feel empowered and hopeful, while in other cases, like with Hawkins, it was used to propagate slave subjugation. In his book titled Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, Albert J. Raboteau explains that slaves saw a direct link between prayers and freedom. [iii] In Manning Marable’s article titled “The Meaning of Faith n the Black Mind of Slavery, he explains that “the Black church gave Blacks faith in themselves as human beings and the courage to resist White oppression.”[iv] Raboteau also discusses the importance of slave preachers to this resistance: “Licensed or unlicensed, with or without permission, preachers held prayer meetings, preached and ministered in a very difficult situation.”[v] It is interesting that Hawkins had a drastically different relationship with slave preachers than others. Raboteau explains that “Slaves frequently were moved to hold their own religious meetings out of disgust for the vitiated Gospel preached by their masters’ preachers.” It is most likely that the preachers which Hawkins constantly heard were hired or approved by Hawkins’ master. This tension between Christianity as a form of oppression and resistance had a strong impact on Hawkins’ childhood.
Slave owners subjugating their slaves through Christianity stems from an idea best described by historians David Brown and Clive Webb: “master-slave relations were predicated on racial superiority and inferiority.”[vi] S. J. Celestine Edwards, who wrote the biography of Walter Hawkins in 1891, aptly describes slave owner attitudes and why they thought it was right to subjugate their slaves:
“There lies in him (a slave) a simple-mindedness which is mistaken for a love of personal slavery. Indeed, he has little in his intellect that is separable from his warm affection; while men have deduced the absurd notion that the Negro is fit for nothing but subservience to the superior race, they forget that it took their race thousands of years to evolve a Darwin form from the ape condition.”[vii]
Slaves like Hawkins were constantly told that they were inferior and did not have the civility and mental capacity to critically think, debate, or participate in a discourse.
After his master died, and he was planned to be sold, Hawkins escaped the subjugating slave world.[viii] He got on a train and went to Philadelphia.[ix] There, Hawkins was strongly influenced by a black preacher named Proctor, who helped hone Hawkins’ religious calling, shaping him into a minister.[x]
In the wider abolitionist movement, Christian denominations extensively debated their stance on slavery.[xi] While there were many churches, even in the north, who were pro-slavery or neutral, there were denominations like the Congregationalists, which unwaveringly supported abolition.[xii] A distinct religious and educational institution of Congregationalists is Oberlin College in Oberlin Ohio, which has been described by historian J. Brent Morris as “one of abolitionism’s inimitable strongholds, a veritable training ground for abolitionist missionaries and antebellum America’s most radical educational institution.”[xiii] Distinct from other institutions, Oberlin is renowned for not only enrolling African Americans, but also enrolling African American women.[xiv]
During the Civil War, one professor of Theology, and professional minister, named William H. Westervelt preached extensively on the immorality of slavery. A proper Congregationalist, Westervelt was unwavering in his anti-slavery views, writing in his personal notes for a talk: “I am in favor of human rights. I am opposed to slavery in every form.”[xv] In one sermon, dated November 26, 1863, he showed his hatred towards slavery, writing: “whenever a nation or any considerable part of a nation becomes so bad that there is no hope of reformation,(…)then we may expect the sword famine or pestilence.”[xvi] While ministers like Westervelt, and anti-slavery churches more broadly, act as resistance to slavery’s oppression, their white privilege prevented them from feeling the full impact of that oppression. It is important to separate Hawkins’ religious education from Westervelt’s. Hawkins’ mentorship by Proctor, who was a black minister, gave his religious education a distinct racial intersection. African Americans who honed their skills as a minister were participating in a separate form of resistance, because of their race.
Hawkins eventually left Philadelphia and moved to New Jersey, where he taught himself how to read and write.[xvii] Self-teaching is the main distinction between Christianity and education as acts of African American resistance. While Hawkins, among others, honed their Christian practice from Black mentors, the wider white Christian abolitionist network was crucial for representing an institution of resistance. Whether a self-emancipated slave was educated at Oberlin, or by a minister like Proctor, there was a general understanding that Christianity was an institution which offered the method for resistance. Teaching oneself how to read and write was not supported by an institution and is depicted in slave narratives as a moment of initiative. Frederick Douglass makes a deal with some local boys, exchanging their tutoring for bread.[xviii] Josiah Henson has his son teach him after he is settled in Canada.[xix] Hawkins teaches himself. Clearly, education is important to these self-emancipated slaves, and the lack of an institution signifies a distinct level of resistance when learning how to read and write.
After teaching himself how to read and write, and marrying his wife, Hawkins moved to Toronto, Canada, finally reaching “the promised land.”[xx] Hawkins bought into the embellishment of Black abolitionists like Samuel Ringgold Ward, who described Canada as the “great moral lighthouse for Black people on this continent.”[xxi] While Hawkins actually met a more realistic Canada, he knew that it was the safest option.[xxii]
Hawkins continued to focus on his calling as a minster, joining the British Methodist Episcopalian Church, working in St. Catharines, Dresden, and Chatham.[xxiii] While there was a migration of self-emancipated slaves across Ontario, they generally settled in areas like St. Catharines, Toronto, London, Chatham, and Windsor, which were near the Canada-U.S. boarder.[xxiv] The majority of Hawkins’ life in Canada was spent helping these other self-emancipated slaves, offering religious guidance and pastoral care. In this time of unending support and dedication to the B.M.E. and the African Canadian community, Hawkins continually struggled with finance and dealt with the deaths of four children.[xxv] Indeed, the importance of both guiding new African Canadians, and resisting race-thinking in a post-slavery world were crucial to Hawkins, who did not let personal tragedy phase his work.
Tracking Hawkins’ experiences until this point, and understanding the broader context of slavery, Christianity, Abolitionist Movements, and education, his religious lectures are clearly understood as an act of resistance. They were the institution for education to which he and other self-emancipated slaves never had access. His lectures is one example of his mentorship to new African Canadians, showing that Hawkins wanted to both resist for himself, and teach others to do the same. The lectures celebrated ideas of faith, public discourse, debate, and intellectual conversation, which were actively described as qualities that African Americans and Canadians could never possess.
While a clear form of resistance to antebellum racial subjugation, the lectures were also a form of resistance in their contemporary period. The lecture from 1883 on slavery shows the significance of that topic 18 years after abolition. At the end of Reconstruction, Hawkins and African Canadians were still living in a world saturated with racism. Even the Morris described “stronghold” of Oberlin College became a segregated institution in the 1880s.[xxvi] Segregation was also enforced in Chatham by the 1860s, when African Canadian children were segregated into separate schools.[xxvii] When compared to the tolerance in late 19th century urban-centres like Toronto, Chatham was entrenched in race-thinking. The level of discrimination after the Civil War in both Oberlin and Chatham juxtaposes their historical importance as places of resistance and refuge for self-emancipated slaves.[xxviii] In a post-slavery society still dominated by race-thinking, Hawkins’ lectures were a method to resist both past and present oppression.
Hawkins’ life was closely tied to previously mentioned self-emancipated slave: Josiah Henson. Henson is known for creating the all black Dawn Settlement, and for his inspiration as the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was also a part of the B.M.E. in Canada, and acted as a religious leader and spiritual advisor. Both Hawkins and Henson went to England on lecture circuits near the end of their lives.[xxix] While they are connected as active resisters in the 19th century African Canadian context, they were also physically connected. Both men grew up on the same plantation in Maryland, and Hawkins also preached at Henson’s funeral.[xxx] Connected both physically and intellectually, the similar ideologies and methods of these self-emancipated slaves show the importance of both faith and knowledge as acts of African Canadian resistance.
As stated by Gwendolyn and John W. Robinson in Seeking the Truth, “Reverand Walter Hawkins died on July 16, 1984, leaving behind his wife, Mariah Francis, sons Jackson Hamilton, Walter Jr., one daughter Mary Elizabeth, a sister Helen Taylor, and several grandchildren.”[xxxi]
The story of Walter Hawkins reveals a crucial understanding of Christianity and knowledge as forms of resistance against racial oppression. By tracing his life, it is clear that this lecture series is a culmination of his experiences with these ideas of faith, public discourse, debate, and intellectual conversation. Being a lecture series, Hawkins was openly resisting the ideas of subservience and stupidity which were infused into him and other slaves in antebellum America. The lectures were sponsored through Hawkins and the B.M.E., showing the importance of Christianity as a form of resistance, and the legacy of Christianity from the abolitionist movement. With slavery as the topic on this particular lecture invitation, it shows that in 1883, slavery was still something to be debated. The object itself ties these important themes together. Holding the invitation physically connected African Canadians to their resistance. It was a tangible manifestation which symbolized their ability to engage in intellectual discourse. Resisting both their past and current oppressive climate, Hawkins and the African Canadian community in Chatham reclaimed the ideas of intellectual discourse, Christianity, and the topic of slavery and racism as their own.
[i] Gwendolyn Robinson and John W. Robinson, Seeking the Truth: A Story of Chatham’s Black Community, (Canada: NP, 2005), 25.
[ii]S. J. Celestine Edwards, From slavery to a bishopric, or, The life of Bishop Walter Hawkins of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Canada, (London, United Kingdom: J. Kensit, 1891), 32.
[iii] Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 148.
[iv] Manning Marable, “The Meaning of Faith in the Black Mind in Slavery,” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 30, no. 4 (1976): 248-264, 264.
[v] Raboteau, Slave Religion, 157.
[vi] David Brown and Clive Webb, Race in the American South: from slavery to civil rights, (United States: University Press of Florida, 2007), 131.
[vii] Edwards, From slavery to a bishopric, 47.
[viii] Robinson, Seeking the truth, 25-6.
[ix] Edwards, From slavery to a bishopric, 62-3.
[x] Robinson, Seeking the truth, 26.
[xi]John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1984), 163-66.
[xii] Ibid, 49.
[xiii] J. Brent Morris, Oberlin, hotbed of abolitionism: college, community, and the fight for freedom and equality in antebellum America, (United States: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 234.
[xiv] Carol Lasser, “Enacting Emancipation: African American Women Abolitionists at Oberlin College and the Quest for Empowerment, Equality, and Respectability,” in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation, ed. Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart, (United States: Yale University Press, 2007), 319-345, 323.
[xv] William A. Westervelt, Anti Slavery Moral Argument, speech notes, from Oberlin College Archives, William A. Westervelt Papers, 1838-1908, box 1; folder “Anti-Slavery,” Accessed November 2, 2018.
[xvi] William A. Westervelt, Giving Sermon, Sermon, November 26, 1863, from Oberlin College Archives, William A. Westervelt Papers, 1838-1908, box 1; folder “Anti-Slavery,” accessed November 2, 2018.
[xvii] Robinson, Seeking the truth, 26.
[xviii] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, (United States: Belknap Press, 1960), 65.
[xix] Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, (Canada: Uncle Tom’s Cabin & Museum, 1965), 60-61.
[xx] Robinson, Seeking the truth, 26.
[xxi] Nina Reid-Maroney, ““A Contented Mind is a Continual Feast”: Tracing Intellectual Migrations through the Promised Land,” in The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond, ed. Boulou Ebanda di B’beri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope, (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 108.
[xxii] Ibid, 83.
[xxiii] Robinson, Seeking the truth, 26-7.
[xxiv] Tracey Adams, “Making a Living: African Canadian Workers in London, Ontario, 1861-1901,” Labour / Le Travail, vol. 67 (2011): 9-43, 10.
[xxvi] Cally L. Waite, “The Segregation of Black Students at Oberlin College after Reconstruction,” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 3, (2001): 344-364, 345.
[xxvii] Adams, “Making a Living,” 17.
[xxviii] Ibid, 18.
[xxix] For Walter Hawkins, see: Robinson, Seeking the truth, 28. For Josiah Henson, see: Josiah Henson, Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson from 1789-1876, (DocSouth Books ed. United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
[xxx] Jessie L. Beattie, Black Moses, the real Uncle Tom, (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957), 212.
[xxxi] Robinson, Seeking the truth, 29.
Adams, Tracey. “Making a Living: African Canadian Workers in London, Ontario, 1861-1901.” Labour / Le Travail. Vol. 67 (2011): 9-43.
Beattie, Jessie L. Black Moses, the real Uncle Tom. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957.
Brown, David and Clive Webb. Race in the American South: from slavery to civil rights. United States: University Press of Florida, 2007.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. United States: Belknap Press, 1960.
Edwards, S. J. Celestine. From slavery to a bishopric, or, The life of Bishop Walter Hawkins of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Canada. London, United Kingdom: J. Kensit, 1891.
Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Canada: Uncle Tom’s Cabin & Museum, 1965.
Henson, Josiah. Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson from 1789-1876. DocSouth Books ed. United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Marable, Manning. “The Meaning of Faith in the Black Mind in Slavery.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. Vol. 30, No. 4, (1976), 248-264.
McKivigan, John R. The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865. New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Morris, J. Brent. Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: college, community, and the fight for freedom and equality in antebellum America. United States: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Robinson, Gwendolyn and John W. Robinson. Seeking the Truth: A Story of Chatham’s Black Community. Canada: NP, 2005.
The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond. Edited by Boulou Ebanda di B’beri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Waite, Cally L. “The Segregation of Black Students at Oberlin College after Reconstruction.” History of Education Quarterly. Vol. 41, No. 3, (2001): 344-64.
Westervelt, William A. Anti Slavery Moral Argument. Speech notes. From Oberlin College Archives, William A. Westervelt Papers, 1838-1908. Box 1; Folder “Anti-Slavery.” Accessed November 2, 2018.
Westervelt, William A. Giving Sermon. Sermon. November 26, 1863. From Oberlin College Archives, William A. Westervelt Papers, 1838-1908. Box 1; Folder “Anti-Slavery.” Accessed November 2, 2018.
Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation. Edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart. United States: Yale University Press, 2007.