My research focuses on Black Sunday schools in late-nineteenth century Ontario. This was inspired by a photograph of a Black Baptist Sunday school class in Amherstburg, found in the Alvin D. McCurdy fonds at the Archives of Ontario. The photograph, dated 1910, depicts a group of Black children sitting outside on a lawn, surrounded by their Sunday school teachers. The children and their instructors wear their Sunday best, consisting of fine white dresses, shoes, and neatly arranged hairdos. The photograph was likely preserved by the members of First Baptist Church in Amherstburg and passed to Alvin McCurdy for his personal collection on Black social organizations in early Ontario. This photograph inspired several themes for investigation, including barriers to Black education, the growth of the Black Baptist church, and the role of Black educators and community organizers in nineteenth-century Ontario.
The First Baptist Church of Amherstburg, Ontario, is a living monument to Black resilience. Established in the 1840s, alongside the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association (ARMBA), it provided escaped and freed slaves with a religious community, a proper education, and a basis for social organization. Without doubt, its most successful and enduring activity was its Sunday school – sometimes called a Sabbath school – which gave Black children the biblical and literaracy training they were denied in white institutions. Since most of Canadian society was segregated, the Black church became “the fugitives’ school, college, and municipal government.” On any given Sunday, “[blacks] could participate with dignity, pride, and freedom” as pastors, deacons, members of the choir, or teachers in Sunday school classes. Black churches also served as welfare institutions, providing food, clothing, housing, and job opportunities. Hence, for Black children and adults in nineteenth-century Amherstburg, the First Baptist Church and its Sabbath school were sources of empowerment, welfare, and identity.
Black Sunday schools have a long and turbulent history. In eighteenth-century Britain, Sunday school societies promoted classes for needy children and slaves. Still, they banned Black students from learning to write, creating “an unsurmountable barrier against their approaching to anything like an equality with their masters.” In the United States, Black children in the 1830s were forbidden from learning to read and write. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 influenced these policies, as many Southerners feared another uprising by literate and biblically informed slaves. For that reason, well into the 1850s, preachers and missionaries serving enslaved populations distanced themselves from the terms “Sunday school” or “Sabbath school” because those phrases were perceived as dangerous by white society. Even in the border states where Black Sunday schools were legal, teachers feared that violent mobs would still destroy their buildings and drive away their students.
Escaped and freed slaves migrating to Canada in the 1850s hoped that they could freely educate their children. While the threat of violence was less present in Canada, segregation in the Province of Ontario meant that Black families were often excluded from white churches and schools. Although British law provided a standard education for all Canadian youth, many towns built separate schools to keep the races apart. In extreme cases, district schools preferred to be closed rather than allow Black children to attend classes. During a meeting of the Amherstburg Public School Trustees in 1851, the board even appealed to the public, including teachers, to exclude Black children. While the board appointed a schoolteacher to oversee Black schools, it was “not over[ly] generous in giving aid to the coloured school at this time.” Consequentially, the children had to meet in a small low building with no chalkboard or chairs, described by one observer as “comfortless and repulsive.” Indeed, Ontario’s Black schools struggled to keep the doors open. Attendance was poor and unpredictable, and the teaching material was often outdated. In Amherstburg, a Black teacher reported being “much troubled by the frequent absences of the pupils, and the miserable tattered and worn-out condition of the books.”
Missionaries also played a role in promoting and preserving black learning institutions. In January 1846, a white Baptist missionary, Isaac J. Rice, wrote to the superintendent of schools for Canada West. He complained about the local trustees, who would, rather than send their children to school with Black students, “cut their children’s heads off and throw them into the roadside ditch.” A few months later, Lewis Hayden, an escaped slave and activist in Canada, wrote to the abolitionist Mary Weston Chapman: “I wish to note that by letter and correspondence with the missionary of Amherstburg, Isaac J. Rice, who has long suffered there on behalf of my people, I learn of the great struggles about schools and all kinds of rights. That officers of government […] drive from schools the colored and hinder amalgamation as they may.” Rice had been aiding escaped slaves and the poor of Amherstburg since 1838 from his missionary home. Amherstburg was, in his own words, “the principal terminus of the Underground Railroad of the West,” yet Rice found it challenging to secure funding.
Like Black church, Black Sunday school began as an “institution within an institution.” Throughout the nineteenth-century, Blacks felt increasingly unwelcome in white congregations. For Black Baptists, one of the chief concerns was the quality of education. As one African-American settler in Ontario complained: “we must admonish our Baptist and Methodist friends, that they are sadly in fault since they neglected their duty and done nothing for us when they have been earnestly entreated to do something, nor are our “Free Mission Baptist” friends even to be excused in this case.” As a result of this neglect, Black Baptists organized their own churches.
The first Black Baptist church in Ontario was established by Elder William Wilkes. Transported from Africa to Virginia at the age of ten, Wilkes arrived in Amherstburg in 1818 and purchased land in neighbouring Colchester Township. There, Wilkes built a log meeting house and launched his preaching ministry. On October 8, 1841, ARMBA was established in the home of John Liberty to amalgamate the black Baptist churches of Michigan and Ontario. Its founding church, Amherstburg First Baptist, invited other Baptist congregations to join the “great Celestial cause.” By the end of 1841, ARMBA consisted of Amherstburg Baptist, Detroit Baptist, and Sandwich Baptist – each with less than twenty congregants. In 1842, ARMBA dedicated itself to the creation of Sabbath Schools “for the benefit of the rising generation and for [its] edification.” The pastor of Amherstburg First Baptist, Rev. Anthony Binga, declared:
If all our churches would live up to their high privileges and exert a holy influence, it would disarm our enemies, overthrow prejudice and sectarianism and do more good than nice deliberations, or loud contentions against the errors and follies of the world […] It would rouse an interest in education, for where a people feel a deep interest in spiritual things, there is likely to be an interest in intellectual pursuits.
The resolution passed by ARMBA on the importance of education was determined to let all church members “search the scriptures for themselves,” for the time had come to “get out of the dark and in to the light.” ARMBA also expanded to include the Baptist Sunday School Committee and the Women’s Home Missionary Society. Female members often hosted community fundraisers, such as in 1876, when the organization funded a Sabbath school library for the Shrewsbury Baptist Church. Women also had the chance to become religious leaders in their communities. In 1885, Rev. Jennie Johnson preached as the minister of Dresden First Baptist Church, and taught in its schoolhouse. Although not instituted as a pastor, Mamie Branton of the Amherstburg Women’s Home Mission made visits to Baptist congregations across Canada West. In 1893, Branton took to the pulpit in North Buxton where she “gave a very able discourse from the 37 chap. of Ezekiel, to a very attentive congregation.”
By 1860, almost every church in the association had organized a Sunday school. When Rev. William Mitchell visited Chatham in 1857, he commented that he had “the pleasure of addressing three hundred children in School,” and judged it was “probably […] the largest, if not the best conducted Sunday School in Canada.” The common desire for black education also allowed ARMBA to associate with churches across denominations. In Sandwich, the Baptist and Methodist Sabbath schools joined together for church picnics. Delegates from the African Methodist Episcopalian Church (AME) addressed members of the ARMBA Sabbath School Convention, stating their common purpose: “although working under different names and methods our aims are the same. We are striving to make men and women of our children, we are striving to lay the foundation for the future church, and last, but not least, we are striving to show our children the path which leads to eternal glory.” By the turn of the nineteenth-century, ARBMA openly welcomed AME and BME members to preach in their churches and teach in their classrooms.
In 1910, eighteen-year-old Jessie Walls spoke to the Baptist Sunday School Convention in Buxton. Her speech, titled “Opportunity,” praised Sunday schools as one of the many vehicles for Black self-improvement:
In the church and Sunday School, in our homes, and at our work whatever our occupation may be, we should learn the lessons of life thoroughly, and train ourselves into a habit of readiness and skillfulness in putting our knowledge into use. […] If we endeavor to obtain useful knowledge of the things that we encounter, and train ourselves to apply that knowledge quickly and readily, we cannot fail to take advantage of our opportunities whenever they present themselves.
Within the walls of Sunday schools, Black Ontarians learned “the importance of self-help, […] literary skills, proper behaviour, and a political awareness,” empowering them with “the opportunity to demand respect and fair laws.” The children photographed in my primary source had a secure Black institution that cared for their physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs. The Black Church and its partner institutions would continue to champion the cause of Black Ontarians throughout the twentieth century, and until last segregated school in Ontario was closed in 1965. Today, ARMBA continues to operate and raise funds for its Sunday schools.
“Baptist Sunday School group in Amherstburg, Ontario, [ca. 1910].” Alvin D. McCurdy Fonds, F 2076-16-5-1-38. Archives of Ontario. http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/explore/online/black_history/big/big_20_baptist_school.aspx.
Brigden, Lorene. “Lifting as we Climb”: The Emergence of African-Canadian Civil Society in Southern Ontario (1840-1901),” PhD. diss., University of Waterloo, 2016. UWSpace, http://hdl.handle.net/10012/11002.
–. “Taylor Family.” Amherstburg Freedom Museum, amherstburgfreedom.org/taylor-family/.
Este, David. “Black Churches in Canada: Vehicles for Fostering Community Development in African-Canadian Communities – a Historical Analysis” in Spirituality and Social Work: Selected Canadian Readings, ed. John Coates et al., 299-321. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2007.
Jenson, Carole. “History of the Negro Community in Essex County 1850-1860.” Master’s Thesis, University of Windsor, 1966. https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7431&context=etd.
“Letter from Lewis Hayden, Detroit, [Michigan], to Maria Weston Chapman, May 14 / 46.” Correspondence. May 14, 1846. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/qz20vq66m.
Silverman, Jason H. Unwelcome Guests: Canada West’s Response to American Fugitive Slaves, 1800-1865. Millwood: Associated Faculty Press Inc., 1985. https://archive.org/details/unwelcomeguestsc00silv/mode/2up.
Winks, Robin W. “Negro School Segregation in Ontario and Nova Scotia.” Canadian Historical Review 50, no. 2 (1969): 164-191. https://doi.org/ 10.3138/CHR-050-02-03
Yee, Shirley J. “Gender Ideology and Black Women as Community‐Builders in Ontario, 1850-70.” Canadian Historical Review 75, no. 1 (1994): 53-73. https://doi.org/10.3138/CHR-075-01-03.
 Jason H. Silverman, Unwelcome Guests: Canada West’s Response to American Fugitive Slaves, 1800-1865 (Millwood: Associated Faculty Press Inc., 1985), 97
 David Este, “Black Churches in Canada: Vehicles for Fostering Community Development in African-Canadian Communities – a Historical Analysis” in Spirituality and Social Work: Selected Canadian Readings, ed. John Coates (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2007), 303
 Este, “Black Churches in Canada,” 309
 Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 132
 Ann M Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1988), 26
 Cornelius, Slave Missions, 132
 Cornelius, 133-134
 Shirley J. Yee, “Gender Ideology and Black Women as Community‐Builders in Ontario, 1850-70.” Canadian Historical Review 75, no. 1 (1994): 68
 Carole Jenson, “History of the Negro Community in Essex County 1850-1860.” (Master’s Thesis, University of Windsor, 1966), 24
 Jenson, “History of the Negro Community in Essex County,” 24
 Yee, “Gender Ideology,” 67-68
 Robin W. Winks, “Negro School Segregation in Ontario and Nova Scotia.” Canadian Historical Review 50, no. 2 (1969): 172
 “Letter from Lewis Hayden, Detroit, [Michigan], to Maria Weston Chapman, May 14 / 46.” Correspondence. May 14, 1846. Digital Commonwealth. https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/qz20vq66m
 Jenson, “History of the Negro Community in Essex County,” 12-13
 Cornelius, Slave Missions, 133
 Este, “Black Churches in Canada,” 309
 Jenson, “History of the Negro Community in Essex County,” 11
 Lorene Brigden, “Lifting as we Climb”: The Emergence of African-Canadian Civil Society in Southern Ontario (1840-1901),” (PhD. diss., University of Waterloo, 2016), 141
 Jenson, “History of the Negro Community in Essex County,” 25-26
 Silverman, Unwelcome Guests,93
 Silverman, 94
 Este, “Black Churches in Canada,” 311
 Yee, “Gender Ideology,” 64
 Brigden, “Lifting as we Climb,” 154
 Silverman, Unwelcome Guests, 93
 James K. Lewis, Religious Life of Fugitive Slaves and Rise of Coloured Baptist Churches, 1820-1865, In What is Now Known as Ontario (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 105
 Brigden, “Lifting as we Climb,” 163
 Brigden, 164
 Lorene Brigden, “Taylor Family.” Amherstburg Freedom Museum, amherstburgfreedom.org/taylor-family/.
 Brigden, “Lifting as we Climb,” 43