Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
St. Lawrence Hall has long been a Toronto destination for big events. Built in the mid-19th century, the hall features several old charms: etched stonework, tall, domed ceilings, ornate finishes. For many, it’s the perfect venue for a fairytale wedding, or for those massive corporate holiday parties with an open bar. Located in the heart of Toronto’s urban centre, it was built specifically for social gatherings—to entertain, to converse, to enjoy.
But in 1851, St. Lawrence Hall played host not to a celebration but to a political gathering: The North American Convention of Coloured Freemen. And one of its organizers, though largely unknown to most Torontonians, is responsible for shaping the landscape of the city’s journalism for people of colour.
The convention was organized by Henry Bibb, of Sandwich, Canada West, (now Windsor, Ontario) and Theodore Holly, of Vermont, to discuss the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in the U.S. It was also a meeting to explore other issues facing their communities as people escaped slavery and fled to the northern states or Canada.
St. Lawrence Hall boasts several historical plaques, including one that commemorates the convention. Construction was completed in 1850, so the hall was practically new when it hosted the convention. Since then, it has been restored to its original glory and designated a National Historic Site.
Henry Bibb was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815, but became a famous abolitionist after he escaped to Detroit in the 1840s. While in Detroit, Bibb married Mary Miles, one of the first Black female teachers in North America who was born a free woman in Rhode Island.
The couple escaped to Canada West after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress. Under the new act, escaped slaves in the northern states could be captured and returned to slaveholders, and authorities in these northern free states had to cooperate.
Henry Bibb, who wrote a book, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, about his terrible childhood and escape from slavery, was not willing to take the chance that he could be sent back south to his former owner. He’d already been separated from his first wife, Malinda, and their daughter, Frances, when they were sold away from him after an unsuccessful escape. In his book, Bibb notes that he attempted on many occasions to escape a life of slavery: “I learned the art of running away to perfection,” he wrote. “I made a regular business of it, and never gave it up, until I had broken the bands of slavery, and landed myself safely in Canada, where I was regarded as a man, and not as a thing.”
After they settled in Sandwich, Henry and Mary Bibb started a newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, the first Black-owned newspaper in Canada. The Voice reported on many issues of interest to the Black Canadian community, including fugitives escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
In 1851, the Voice covered the convention at St. Lawrence Hall. In the first issue published after the convention, the paper reported that “time and space are too limited this week…it is sufficient to say that the result was glorious.” There was still space to give a breakdown of what had been discussed at each session and to give a list of the delegates who attended, which included visitors from the U.S., other towns in Canada West, and even one from England. Thornton Blackburn, who was living in Toronto at the time, also attended.
The first session started with the appointment of Henry Bibb as chair. In his opening address to the convention, reported in the following issue of the Voice, Bibb said the Fugitive Slave Act turned the northern states into “a common hunting ground for kidnappers and man-thieves.”
In one of the early sessions, the convention declared that the Act was “an insult to God and an outrage upon humanity,” and delegates resolved to welcome American refugees and work to obtain arable land for the settlers. Both Bibbs were involved in the Refugee Home Society, which worked to buy land for refugees.
On the final day, the convention resolved that Canada or the British West Indies were the best places for American refugees.
Bibb was lucky enough that three of his younger brothers, who had been sold away when they were young, were able to escape to freedom in Canada with him. Bibb died at the age of 39 in 1854.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a photo of St. Lawrence Market South was St. Lawrence Hall. Torontoist regrets the error.
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