Wilberforce Colony was a colony established by free American Black citizens, founded at the end of the second decade of the 19th century north of present day London, Ontario, Canada. This was one of several movements initially growing from or sympathetic to the American Colonization Society, established in 1816 to settle free Blacks in an African colony. When American Black communities favored emigration, they preferred a country where free Blacks could hold full political control of their destiny. The establishment of Wilberforce Colony in Canada was one such movement, linked particularly to Cincinnati, Ohio.
The increase in the Cincinnati Black population in the decade starting in 1820 was rapid and pronounced. In 1820, some 433 African-Americans comprised less than 4% of the city's population, but over the next decade the city's Black population swelled by more than 400%. This change alarmed some residents. In response to a citizens' petition in 1828, the Cincinnati City Council appointed a committee "to take measures to prevent the increase of negro population within the city". In March of that year the Ohio Supreme Court decided that the 1807 Black Laws were indeed constitutional. The Cincinnati City Council enforced this restrictive legislation. Near the end of June, Cincinnati Blacks elected Israel Lewis and Thomas Crissup to survey a site in Canada to which the Cincinnati Blacks could emigrate. Lewis and Crissup met with John Colbourne, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, to discuss prospects of settling in the area. They entered into a contract with the Canada Company for the purchase of land in Biddulph in the Huron Tract in Ontario, lots 2, 3, and 5 north of the Proof Line Road and lot 11 south of the road, for the amount of $1.50 per acre. The land was on the Ausable River, some twenty miles (32 km) from Lake Huron, and about thirty-five miles from the shore of Lake Erie.
The Cincinnati Riots of 1829 continued from the start of July to the end of August. Those who left the city that summer comprised two groups: those who were primarily forced out of Cincinnati by violence, fear, and inability to work generally settled in nearby towns or villages. The second group was an organized exodus of blacks, with many emigrating to the Canadian site. Since movement to the still-unnamed Wilberforce Colony required purchase of land, those without financial resources simply stopped and settled in towns on the southern shore of Lake Erie where they could find work. They never made it to Canada.
Although exact figures are not known, evidence suggests that of the initial exodus, only five or six families made it to the Ontario colony in the first year. Eventually about 150-200 families settled there.
The initial group faced traveling some thirty-five miles northward through untracked forest, and then having to clear land for crops and build dwellings. Financial stability for the colony was precarious for that first year. Subsequent recruiting efforts drew Blacks from other northern cities, and by 1832 there were 32 families in the area. In 1831 the settlement was named Wilberforce in honor of William Wilberforce, the prominent British abolitionist who had led the fight for the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that abolished slavery in most of the British Empire.
The initial arrangement between Israel Lewis and Thomas Crissup envisaged the purchase of 4,000 acres (16 km2) for $6000, to be paid by November 1830. But the number of colonists expected to support that purchase could not be immediately achieved, and the financial resources of the initial colonists could not support that arrangement. Appeals were made for further support. Attempts in Cincinnati and pleas to the Ohio state legislature were in vain. But an appeal to the Quakers was successful, and on September 20, 1830, James Brown and Stephen Duncan purchased 400 acres (1.6 km2) for Wilberforce.
With the land secured, the colonists turned to clearing land and building structures. By 1832 the settlement had crops in the ground and log homes. Settlers built three sawmills, one powered by water; a gristmill, and several general stores. The proximity of the settlement to the river gave transportation access to goods and provided a way to export products, agricultural and forest-related.
The riot in Cincinnati, and the establishment of Wilberforce Colony, raised a national Black consciousness. Interest grew in emigration from other northern cities. The Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia assembled Black leaders from across the north to search for solutions to empower all African-Americans. In an 1830 convention, the Assembly organized itself as the American Society of Free Persons of Color, the beginning of the black convention movement.
Within the first 18 months, as Wilberforce grew from the initial few families, other black American emigrants joined them from Boston, Rochester, Albany, New York, Baltimore, and other cities. By 1835 the community had 166 inhabitants.
With this infusion of African-Americans from several places, political growth began. A board of managers was created, primarily to oversee financial matters. Austin Steward was president. He and other newcomers replaced the old Cincinnati leaders, relegating Israel Lewis, colony organizer and land agent, to fund-raising agent.
The schism between old Cincinnati families and new settlers eventually led to the decline of the colony.
The initial group of emigrants tended to be from the more educated class of Cincinnati Blacks, and education for their children was of great importance. This also built on an educational tradition formed in Cincinnati, where the community placed great importance on education of their children. The desire of the Wilberforce colonists was for more than mere literacy. The first institution established in Wilberforce was a school. William Lloyd Garrison visited the colony in 1831, and noted that 20-30 children attended schools. By 1832 there had been three schools established, and the quality of these schools drew students from the surrounding white population.
Aspirations for education extended beyond elementary and secondary schools. The colony attempted to establish a manual labor college for boys. Impetus began at the first annual convention of the American Society of Free Persons of Color, with the proposal to establish such a college at New Haven, Connecticut. When this seemed impossible, the convention turned to Wilberforce. A national subscription campaign in the United States and Great Britain, under the direction of Nathaniel Paul, was attempted. The subscription drive failed, but the importance of higher education to the Wilberforce colonists was clearly demonstrated.
Decline into obscurity
The schism between early and later colonists continued to grow, particularly in subscription campaigns. In 1831 two fund-raising agents were appointed, Israel Lewis in the United States and Nathaniel Paul in England. Both agents failed to live up to expectations, and suspicions of wrongdoing, particularly by Israel Lewis, exacerbated the problems of Wilberforce.
Gradually most of the Cincinnati leaders abandoned the colony within that first decade, and many of the leaders of the emigration movement, who had located in Wilberforce, left. By the late 1840s the Irish began moving into the area, and the Black population declined greatly. Eventually the Irish community supplanted Wilberforce altogether, and the town of Lucan was incorporated. Wilberforce as a free Black colony faded into history. By the end of the 20th century only a single family, that of Peter Butler, had descendants still in the area of the Wilberforce Colony village.
- Taylor, Nikki M. "Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati's Black Community, 1802-1868" Ohio University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8214-1579-4, pp.50-79.
- Cincinnati City Council Minutes, November 19, 1828.
- Leverton, John, Wilberforce Colony , from Lucan 125 Souvenir Booklet 1871-1996.
- Liberator, November 5, 1831.