The downtown church where former slaves found refuge in Hamilton

Stewart Memorial Church has served as a refuge for members of Hamilton's black community since its inception in the 1830s.

Stewart Memorial choir still sings spirituals passed down from Underground Railroad days

Stewart Memorial Church has been at its John Street North location since 1879. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The legacy of Hamilton's first black church goes back to some of the city's earliest days. 

On a warm, cloudy afternoon in Ancaster, church historian and archivist Evelyn Auchinvole tells stories from Stewart Memorial Church's history, including snippets of spirituals for a small crowd gathered on Sunday, the day before Emancipation Day.

Aug. 1 commemorates the anniversary of that day in 1834 when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Upper Canada – now Ontario – was the first to enact it.

The Emancipation Proclamation in the United States wouldn't come for another 30 years in 1863.

"Canada was a little ahead of the curve on this one," Auchinvole said.

'Being hated for the colour of our skin'

Stewart Memorial has always been a refuge, she said.

It began in the 1830s as St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopalian Church, and moved to its current site on John Street North in 1879 after a fire decimated its original location on Rebecca Street.

To this day, the church's choir sings spirituals passed down from the original congregation that sang them along the Underground Railroad, Auchinvole said.

"Even this day, we still carry forward that history, of being hated for the colour of our skin."

Now a city-maintained property, Griffin House was bought by Enerals Griffin in 1834 and remained in his family until 1988. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The church's first pastor was Josiah Henson, the man believed to inspire the character in Harriett Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Throughout the decades, the church has continued to be a religious and cultural centre for Hamilton's black community.

It has been a place to receive a meal if you're hungry, a place to find work if you're without, a place to find solidarity with others navigating the post-slavery, yet still restrictive, landscape.

'The right side of history'

Sunday's talk about the church's history took place at Griffin House, a preserved farmhouse built in 1827 that Enerals Griffin, a black immigrant from Virginia, bought in 1834. Members of his family lived there through 1988.

Auchinvole said she sees parallels between Canada as a refuge for people of African descent more than 150 years ago, and people from Syria coming to Canada seeking refuge now.

"In the long run, Canada is on the right side of history," she said.

And Hamilton was in the centre of that, she said.