The unlikely life of an escaped slave in Saint John

When Cornelius Sparrow and his wife arrived in Saint John in 1851, they were fleeing for their lives. They were also unknowingly making history.

Cornelius Sparrow, born a slave in Virginia, became a leader in the city

Cornelius Sparrow and an unidentified man — possibly his brother — stands in the doorway of his 'dining saloon' on Germain Street, Saint John. Sparrow, an escaped slave, became a successful businessman in the city in the mid-19th century. (Submitted by Heritage Resources)

When Cornelius Sparrow and his wife arrived in Saint John in 1851, the young black couple were fleeing for their lives.
They couldn't have known it, but they were also making history.

Sparrow, born a slave in Virginia, would become one of the most prominent black Saint Johners of the late 19th century. A small business owner, restaurateur, hairdresser, and church trustee, he owned buildings and ran numerous businesses.

He went from being labourer to a person who owned a saloon and owned other things in the city.- Ralph Thomas, PRUDE Inc.

"This gentleman — a black individual, back in the 1800s, a runaway slave, had to look out for himself at all times in case the slave-catchers were after him, or people that would turn him over," said Ralph Thomas, president of PRUDE Inc., a non-profit whose name stands for Pride of Race, Unity and Dignity through Education.

Ralph Thomas, president of PRUDE Inc., said many people in the city weren't aware of the 19th-century inroads made by the remarkable Cornelius Sparrow. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

"He went from being labourer to a person who owned a saloon and owned other things in the city. A lot of people didn't realize that the black folks had made all these inroads way back in the 1800s," Thomas said as Black History Month got underway.

How Sparrow and his wife escaped the slave state of Virginia to thrive on the East Coast of Canada is a remarkable story that had, until recently, been lost.

Wife ransomed

The early details of Sparrow's life, like those of many former slaves, went largely unrecorded.

He was born in Norfolk, Va., in 1824. Sometime before 1850, the young man fled to Massachusetts, by then a free state.

But his wife, Martha Ann Whitehead, 23 years old, was still the property of Virginia slave owner Aaron Mihardo. In The Captive's Quest for Freedom, R. J. M. Blackett describes how Mihardo tried to force Sparrow to pay a $450 ransom to free her.

An ad seeking the return of an escaped slave, published in the Quebec Gazette, on Aug. 4, 1791, vol. no. 1359, p. 6 Supplement-1. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

Sparrow refused. Instead, he and Martha sought help from the Boston Vigilance Committee, an abolitionist organization that helped bring hundreds of slaves in southern states to freedom in northern states. With their assistance, and that of Martha's mother, freed slave Nancy Whitehead, Cornelius and Martha fled to safety in Canada.

In January 1850, Sparrow and Whitehead were sent to Halifax to escape slave catchers.

They arrived in Saint John in 1851.

The lives of black Saint Johners in the 19th century were far from unrestricted.

Defying racist laws

The city charter of 1785 prevented people of African descent from practising a trade, selling goods and fishing in the harbour. While those laws were easing by 1850, many blacks remained poor and disenfranchised. 

Despite that, Sparrow is listed on the city directory of 1851 as a freeman and a "trader."

Over the next five years, his fortunes steadily improved. By 1856, Cornelius's brother, George, also appears in the city directory as a freeman, with "barber" listed as his occupation.

The brothers opened the Model Hair Dressing Saloon at 18 Charlotte Street in 1862.

The Victoria Dining Saloon. A local newspaper wrote: 'Cornelius Sparrow’s New Saloon on Germain Street opposite the Country Market is by far the finest in St. John, and, indeed has few rivals in Canada.' (Submitted by Heritage Resources. )

An undated advertisement touted their services to "wait on Ladies, who wish their hair dressed in the latest Fashionable Style at their own residences, or at private apartments in Mr. Sparrow's House."

In 1873, they opened the Victoria Dining Saloon, a restaurant that specialized in foreign and domestic fruits and vegetables, including "Buctouche and Prince Edward Island oysters."

The local newspaper wrote: "Cornelius Sparrow's New Saloon on Germain Street opposite the Country Market is by far the finest in St. John, and, indeed has few rivals in Canada."

An undated Saint John newspaper advertisement for Cornelius Sparrow's hairdressing saloon begins: 'The undersigned respectfully informs his numbers patrons and the public generally, that he has enlarged his “Modus Operandi,” by the employment of two first-class Artistes, whose style of workmanship is unequalled.'

In a photo taken during this period, Sparrow appears as a barrel-chested man, medium height, in a tall top hat and a neat dress coat. He stands in the doorway of his saloon with another man, likely his brother.

Under the strictest and most severe conditions you can always be successful — if you've got the burn and the drive to do it.- Ralph Thomas

In 1870, both brothers were sworn in as trustees of the Calvin Baptist Church. They bought properties throughout the southern peninsula.

Although some buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1877, Sparrow remained an active storekeeper and entrepreneur in Saint John until his death in the 1880s.

"He was a community man," said Thomas.

A lasting memorial

Sparrow is buried in Fernhill Cemetery in east Saint John beside his mother-in-law, Nancy Whitehead.

More than 130 years later, the grave has been vandalized and damaged by weather.

"It was flattened out, it was split in half," said Thomas.

The graves of Cornelius Sparrow and Nancy Whitehead in Fernhill Cemetery. In spring 2018, PRUDE plans to restore the graves and raise them up again. (Submitted by Dave Barnes)

PRUDE members have visited the site since the 1990s to clean the stone and cut back weeds, but it is badly overgrown, the inscription largely weathered off.

This spring, the non-profit group plans to fully restore the stone, cleaning it and raising it up again with the services of a local contractor.

Sparrow was "a major part of history and and outstanding leader," Thomas said. "We want to make sure there's a marker up [for him]."

He sees Sparrow's unlikely career in Saint John as proof that "black people can be successful, whether it's in the 1800s or 2018."

"Under the strictest and most severe conditions you can always be successful — if you've got the burn and the drive to do it."