February 19, 2023
Fugitive slaves and other black people began to arrive in Bronte and the Oakville area as early as 1830. The Act Against Slavery had been passed in Upper Canada, later renamed Ontario, in 1793 and was one of the first pieces of anti-slavery legislation in the world. It banned the importation of slaves and allowed children born to female slaves to go free at the age of 25. This meant that slavery would slowly disappear from the province. Britain banned slavery in Canada and other colonies in 1833 but the underground railroad was already in full swing bringing fugitive slaves into Canada. Many of these people ended up in the Oakville area.
One of these former slaves was James Wesley Hill who escaped to Canada inside a packing box and settled on a local farm. Over the next few years he returned to the United States many times and helped an estimated 700-800 African Americans escape to Canada. He offered them temporary work on his strawberry farm while they worked to establish themselves. James was also referred to as “Canada Jim” and he has been honoured by having a local school named after him. The following picture of James Wesley Hill is from the James Wesley Hill school page.
Around 1860 Samuel Adams and his brother in law, Rev. William Butler organized between 300 and 400 former slaves in the area to form a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They were able to build a small church on the east side of Sixteen Mile Creek. This church burned down and in 1890 a plot of land was gained on the west side of the creek. Several setbacks occurred and construction didn’t begin until 1891 with the first service being held on Jan. 1, 1892. The side view of the church in the picture below shows the rounded arches of the windows which shunned the pointed arches of the gothic architecture common in churches of the era. The row of bricks turned on an angle under the roof line is the sole form of ornamentation in the brickwork.
The church was named after Bishop Henry McNeal Turner who had been an advocate of the “Back to Africa” movement in the United States. Turner was the first black chaplain appointed by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The church was dedicated as Turner Chapel to honour the bishop. A manse was built in the 1930s to the west of the church to house the pastor of the congregation. The manse can be seen on the right of the picture below which also shows the rear of the church.
Although the cornerstone of the church is dated 1890 it wasn’t laid until 1891. It also has lettering which denotes the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The church was in use until the later part of the twentieth century when the congregation had dispersed to other communities. For awhile the church was leased to an offshoot of the Anglican Church. However, in 2000 the building was put up for sale. Since the Oakville Historical Society has strict guidelines on what can be done with the building, it wasn’t attractive to developers. In 2002 Jed Gardner decided to buy both the church and the manse to house his antique business. The picture below shows the interior of the chapel looking from the rear toward the front of the chapel.
The following picture shows the view from where the pastor used to stand looking toward the entrance. The antique shop is an interesting place to wander around and explore and you just might find something to add to your collection.
The Oakville Historical Society has put a sign on the front of the building to bring attention to the history of the chapel.
Turner Chapel is an important part of the history of the Black Community and the underground railroad in Oakville.
Google Maps Link: Turner Chapel
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