Local group to renew ties to Canadian city founded by ex-slaves

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Most Pittsburghers probably have never heard of Buxton, a town settled by ex-slaves just across Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada.

The descendants of Buxton's settlers, however, have never forgotten the help their foreparents received from the black and white conductors of Pittsburgh's Underground Railroad.

Labor Day weekend, former Pittsburgh councilman Sala Udin, now president and CEO of Coro Center for Civic Leadership, will lead a bus tour from Pittsburgh to Buxton to renew the friendship established more than a century ago.

The tour, conducted in conjunction with Corporate Planners, will leave Pittsburgh 8 a.m. Sept. 1, and return Sept. 3. The trip will coincide with Buxton's annual Labor Day Family Reunion.

The trip includes a two-night stay in Harrah's Casino in Windsor, Ontario. Reunion events will feature a barbecue dinner, wagon tours, family photos in period costume, gospel concerts, book readings and signings, car show, family baseball games, museum exhibits.

The Pittsburgh delegation will also have the opportunity to ride in a decorated wagon caravan during a Labor Day parade.

The original settlers of Buxton, who passed through Pittsburgh on their way north, got shelter, food, medicine and encouragement while here. They never forgot the help they received from their Pittsburgh friends and stayed in touch.

In return, those Pittsburghers, so impressed with the success of the settlement, raised money to have a 500-pound replica of the Liberty Bell made by A. Fulton Foundry and shipped to Buxton. The bell was rung every Sunday to call worshipers to service. When the town moved a few miles away, the bell remained in the church tower because it was too fragile to move.

As part of the Labor Day activities, Buxton will dedicate a new bell it had made to replicate the original bell it received from Pittsburgh.

"One of the things that made that settlement so important was the idea that many pro-slavery advocates had been promoting around that time that blacks lacked the intelligence to be able to establish a new civilization, a new settlement, a new town," said Mr. Udin. "And this settlement of uneducated ex-slaves belied that point of view because they built roads and factories and bridges and schools and churches and a government.

"As a matter of fact, the school that they built and operated was so good that the white community in a nearby town closed their school and sent [their children] to Buxton."

Mr. Udin said there was a strong relationship and frequent communication between blacks in Pittsburgh and blacks in Buxton. Pittsburgh physician Martin R. Delaney visited Buxton in 1856.

Two notable black Pittsburghers of the time, J.B. Vashon and J.C. Peck, signed the letter that accompanied the bell from Pittsburgh to Buxton. As part of the re-connection between the two towns, Mr. Udin has tracked down one of Mr. Vashon's descendants.

Janet Davis, a human resources manager at Princeton University Press and a 10th-generation member of the Vashon family, will be making the trip to Buxton.

"She has been doing genealogy on the Vashon family, but she did not know about the bell," Mr. Udin said.

Mr. Udin and his wife first went to Buxton in 2004, after learning about its connection to Pittsburgh from independent curator Janera Solomon.

"We had hired her as a consultant when we first started organizing the August Wilson Center and she shared [the story] with us."

Ms. Solomon said she was working on an Underground Railroad tourism study for the Ministry of Tourism in Ontario.

She drove to each of the sites from the Detroit corridor to Toronto.

"That's how I met the people at the Buxton site," Ms. Solomon said. "They were really great, and while I was there they told me about the connection to a group of abolitionists in Pittsburgh." The Elgin Settlement, in South Buxton, was established by the Rev. William King, a Presbyeterian minister who moved to Canada with his wife and their slaves.

She had inherited her slaves from her father, and the Rev. King had acquired slaves with the intent of freeing them.

The Elgin Settlement included a farm and the Buxton Mission, which had a school and a church. The Rev. King established an anti-slavery group called the Elgin Association, which raised money to pay for land that was in turn sold to ex-slaves. Each slave received a 50-acre plot, which was paid for by selling timber and farming.

In 1850, the Rev. King visited Pittsburgh to tell its citizens about Elgin and to raise money for his anti-slavery movement.

When the Civil War broke out, 70 Buxton settlers fought for the Union. After the war, many of the settlers returned to the United States. When the railroads were being built, many of the black farmers of South Buxton moved to North Buxton, where the railroad jobs were. Whites were also allowed to purchase land in the Elgin Settlement following the war, something that had not been permitted before.

Today, South Buxton, where the "Liberty Bell" remains in the tower of St. Andrews United Church of Canada, is almost entirely white. North Buxton, where the North Buxton Museum is located, is mostly black.

Many of those living in those communities do not have a direct connection to the Elgin Settlement, Ms. Solomon said. However, residents in both areas realize the importance of its history. "They seem really invested and dedicated in maintaining it, which is amazing," Ms. Solomon said.

Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.


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