London

London's oldest tree has deep roots for black community

The 670-year-old white oak tree in south London served as a stop during the mid-1800s for thousands of asylum seekers to congregate for safety via the Underground Railroad.

The tree in Westminster Ponds is the site of the annual Emancipation Day celebration

Justine Turner, co-organizer of Black History Month in London, stands in front of the Meeting Tree. The 700 year-old white oak tree in south London served as a stop during the mid-1800s for thousands of asylum seekers to congregate for safety via the Underground Railroad

London's oldest tree has surpassed its average lifespan — and with it — is keeping alive a part of the city's racial history.

The 670-year-old white oak tree in south London is believed to have served as a meeting place during the mid-1800s for thousands of asylum seekers who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad

"I feel love around the tree. I feel happiness and joy. I want to cry," said Justine Turner, a historian and one of the founders of Black History Month in London.

"I feel the pain that the tree has endured and what it has seen."

The province and the city recognized the tree nested between a hiking trail and a dry creek at Westminster Ponds as a heritage site in 2012.

The 700 year-old white oak tree in south London served as a stop during the mid-1800s for thousands of asylum seekers to congregate for safety via the Underground Railroad

The tree stands about 10 stories high. It takes about a dozen people to wrap their arms together around the trunk.

"It was here to help," said Turner. "I can picture our brothers and sisters sitting around by the tree around the fire and talking."

"They would have built caves and hid for safety. They would have used the tree as a watch tower."

Turner said the Meeting Tree, as it is known, was a safe haven for people who fled plantation life in southern parts of the United States. Many hid in pianos, coffins or carts as they sought refuge north in Canada.

Turner said some people stayed to establish a life in London and the surrounding region. For others, the Meeting Tree would be a stop before the next leg of their journey to freedom.

Although there is no physical documentation that the tree served its purpose, Turner said similar sites across the country acted as safe havens for asylum seekers.

In 2013, Turner brought back Emancipation Day celebrations to the city after a 30-year hiatus. The event will be held this year on Aug. 7th at the heritage site. 

Visiting London's oldest tree

Reforest London, non-profit environment organization, has included the Meeting Tree as a historic site in its nature tours at the conservation area.

"It's a great landmark for people to see," said Kaitlin Richardson, projects manager for the organization. "A lot of people develop a healthy respect for the tree. When you tell them how old it is and the history… They go and hug it and feel it"

The average life span of a white oak tree is between 300 to 600 years.

Richardson said the Meeting Tree is in good health and could see many years to come. 

To hear the interview click here.