Wilson Ruffin Abbott
|Wilson Ruffin Abbott|
|Died||1876 (aged 74–75)
|Resting place||Necropolis Cemetery
Having to flee the United States in 1834, he became a wealthy man in Toronto and one of the largest landowners in the ward. Prominent in local affairs, he was elected to Toronto City Council, instigated taxpayer petitions on public issues of concern to both black and white residents and had served briefly on the organizing committee for the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society. He was also the father of Anderson Ruffin Abbott, Canada's first black physician.
Wilson Ruffin Abbott was born in Richmond, Virginia to a Scotch-Irish father and a free negro mother. In his youth, he was apprenticed as a carpenter but ran away from home at fifteen and went to Alabama where he worked in a hotel for his room and board. He went on from there to work on a Mississippi River steamer as a steward. Seriously injured when cord wood fell upon him, he was nursed by a Boston traveller's maid, Ellen Toyer, whom he later married in 1830.
He then moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he opened a general grocery store. Before long Mobile's city council passed a law requiring all free negroes to post a bond signed by two white men, guaranteeing their good behavior, and to wear badges showing that they were under bond. Abbott refused to obey the new regulations. Abbott never returned to Mobile, although he tried unsuccessfully to get compensation for his property there.
In 1834, receiving an anonymous warning that his store was to be pillaged, he withdrew his savings, put his wife and two children aboard a steamer for New Orleans, and slipped away alone on the night his store was attacked.
The Abbotts moved to New York, but finding that Blacks were treated unfairly there as well, decided to settle in Toronto. They arrived there in 1835, one of hundreds of African American families to seek a greater degree of freedom in Upper Canada at this time. Two years later Abbott was one of the city's Blacks who joined Captain Fuller's Company of Volunteers during the Mackenzie Rebellion.
After a false start as a tobacconist, Abbott became a dealer in properties and increasingly made his mark in real estate. Although he could not read until his wife taught him, he was known for an unusual ability to do complex calculations in his head. By 1871 Abbott owned land in Toronto, Hamilton and Owen Sound. He often helped purchase freedom for fugitive slaves.
Abbott served in the militia during the rebellion of 1837. In 1838 he was one of six organizers of the Colored Wesleyan Methodist Church, aiding in the purchase of property for it. He supported the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada under the Reverend Michael Willis. He was elected to the city council from St. Patrick's Ward, which he carried by some 40 votes, and served as a member of the central committee established in 1859 by the Reformers in Canada West. In 1840 his wife helped organize the Queen Victoria Benevolent Society to aid indigent black women, and in later years she was active in the British Methodist Episcopal Church.
Later life and death
The Abbotts moved to Elgin for a short time to give their children the advantage of a classical education at the famous Buxton School. They returned to Toronto, where Abbott died in 1876. He was buried on a hillside in Toronto's Necropolis, overlooking the Don Valley.
The Abbotts had four sons and five daughters. One son, Anderson Ruffin, would become the first Canadian-born Black doctor to receive a licence to practise medicine.
Wilson Ruffin Abbott was unusual in being a successful black businessman and politician in the late 19th century. Abbott did not encounter any serious discrimination, even though Blacks elsewhere in the province did. Thus, his experience was not a typical one. His undoubted abilities no doubt helped offset most of the residual prejudice he may otherwise have met.
- Winks, Robin W. (1972). "Wilson Ruffin Abbott". Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. X. Toronto. ISBN 0-8020-3287-7.
- Hill, Daniel G. (1960). Negroes in Toronto: A Sociological Study of a Minority Group. University of Toronto Press.
- Hill, Daniel G. (1981). The freedom-seekers: Blacks in early Canada. Book Society of Canada. ISBN 0-7725-5283-5.
- "The Freedom Seekers". Black Dominion. 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-26.