By Dr. Nina Reid Maroney
Special to The Voice
In September 1858, members of the black abolitionist community in Chatham led a dramatic public protest against racial slavery.
The event, which came to be known as the Demarest Rescue, began when a station agent in London wired ahead to Chatham, reporting that a white American man had boarded the train for Detroit, taking a young black child with him. It was feared that the child, Sylvanus Demarest, was being kidnapped into slavery.
In Chatham, the word spread quickly, and when the train stopped for water in the east end of town, over 100 people had gathered. They boarded the train, and swept the child away to safety.
Several of Chatham’s most prominent Black residents, including May Ann Shadd Cary’s brother, Isaac Shadd, were arrested. A costly legal defense followed, leading to their release.
The child was reunited with his mother, and the whole event made headlines in Chatham, in the UK, and in the pages of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.
A walk through downtown Chatham today provides no traces of this extraordinary event in the city’s abolitionist past. In the political climate of 1858, the Chatham rescuers took bold action that risked serious consequences to their safety, property, and reputation—this was an 1850s analog to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – and yet this action is not publicly recognized.
There is no visible trace of its memory – it has become a “phantom of the past.”
History students from Huron University College at Western and Bath Spa University in the UK are asking why.
As part of the research collaboration, “Phantoms of the Past: Slavery and Resistance in History and Memory,” students and faculty from Huron and Bath Spa recently spent time in Chatham visiting the site of the Demarest Rescue, and other places in the city that were important in the antislavery movement.
Their research is part of a collaboration between local communities on both sides of the Atlantic, and the partner universities. The goal of the project is to ask how the histories of transatlantic slavery and antislavery have been remembered, and how they have been forgotten. Student research projects focus on sites of memory in landscapes, museums, texts, and communities.
One part of the project is the intentional walking practice led by Bath Spa University Lecturer Richard White, who has led student walks in Canada and the UK, asking students to reflect about what they see, and what they don’t see.
The search for “hidden heritage” through White’s walking practice is tracked through live social media feeds that record memory, photographs, and impressions of the walks. Students see this as a powerful way to re-imagine the past, and to think about why some aspects of the past are celebrated, while others such as the Demarest Rescue are ignored or covered up.
The Phantoms of the Past collaboration is linked to the work of Finding Christ Church, a 200th anniversary project of Christ Church, Chatham, that seeks to document and raise new questions about the social justice history associated with the Anglican presence in the community.
Research for the project examines connections between Chatham’s black abolitionists and their antislavery supporters in the Anglican communion of the 1850s.
Student research on “Phantoms of the Past” is available at huronresearch.ca/phantomsofthepast.