Beth Emmanuel BME Church
The church was established in 1847 by the AME leadership in Philadelphia and was part of a large network of AME churches in Canada. It was the centre of the community’s life, known in the 1940s and 1950s for its Southern-style fowl suppers, held each November. The church remains active today despite a serious fire in 1991.
Backstory and Context
London’s Black Community after the Civil War
It ‘is not what we were yesterday, not yet is it what we are today that gives us so much hope, but it is, according to the handwriting on the wall, what we shall be tomorrow. And thus we have chosen our name: The Dawn of Tomorrow”.
As with those elsewhere in Ontario, London’s Black community experienced a decline in numbers following the end of the Civil War in 1865, as many former slaves returned to the United States seeking family members. Even long-term residents wished to return following Emancipation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. London’s 1878 City Directory, which lists the inhabitants of the city along with their addresses and occupations, includes 54 names each with the notation “col’d” beside it, indicating a “coloured” individual. Assuming that at least half of this group were heads of households of perhaps four persons each, there may have been a Black population of about 135 in the 1880s.
The remaining Black community held various occupations; some were labourers and some were in the boot and shoe trade; almost a quarter of the men listed, however, were barbers. Barbering became a traditional Black occupation throughout North America as Blacks sought out ways to serve the White population to achieve a level of economic independence. One of the best known of London’s Black barbers was Shadrack Martin. Born a free man in Tennessee in 1833, Martin trained as a barber and came to London when he was 21. The depression in the late 1850s caused him to return to the United States, where he earned a living as a barber on the Mississippi river boats. In 1861, he enlisted with the Union forces at the behest of the captain of a Mississippi river gunboat who wanted Martin for his steward. He stayed with the ship until 1863, when he returned to London. He worked in his own shop across from the market on King Street until World War I.
A large portion of the Black community remained in the vicinity of Grey and Maitland streets, where Beth Emmanuel British Methodist Episcopal Church had been built c. 1870. However, following 1878, the Black residents gradually disappeared from the area and Black families moving into the city after this period generally located further east.