Black history: Lucan-Biddulph mural honours Wilberforce Colony, Butler family

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A mural dedicated to the Wilberforce Colony and the Butler family was unveiled Friday in Lucan-Biddulph to commemorate the township’s Black history.

The mural pays homage to the refugee slave settlement — one of the first in Canada, founded in 1829 — that was the original site of present-day Lucan.

It also acknowledges Peter Butler III, a descendant of original Wilberforce settlers who became Canada’s first Black police officer with the OPP.

“(My grandfather) would be pretty excited, I think,” said Ed Butler, 94.

“For generations to come, it’s wonderful that they will see this (mural),” said Marlene Thornton, Ed’s niece and a sixth-generation Butler. “I know how proud my dad . . . would be of this wonderful tribute.”

Ed still lives in Lucan on original family land with his wife, Annelies. The Second World War veteran has eight children and 24 grandchildren, with Butlers now living across Canada and the U.S.

Seven generations of Butlers have called Lucan home since settling in the region in the early 1800s.

The Wilberforce Colony was established by fugitive slaves from Cincinnati in 1829. They purchased 323 hectares in what was then Biddulph Township from the Canada Co. in 1830, but the area had to be cleared and made liveable by the escaped slaves.

Within three years, 32 families were living in the settlement and had established schools, churches and sawmills.

The settlement was named in honour of William Wilberforce, a British abolitionist.

As the colony grew to between 150 and 200 families by 1835 — many from Boston, New York and Baltimore — the colonists had crops in the ground, log homes, a gristmill and several general stores.

The settlement declined by the 1850s, with many of the original Black colonists moving to larger urban centres. Only a small number of Blacks stayed in the area, including the family of early settler Peter Butler.

His grandson, Peter Butler III, would become a well-known figure in Lucan, acting as constable following the 1880 Donnelly massacre.

Though she never met him, Thornton called her great-grandfather "a man of integrity and honesty."

He was a man “ahead of his time,” she said, who would bring offenders into his home, offer them a meal or a bed, and the opportunity to work on the farm and make money.

The mural, in the food bank parking lot on Main Street, is the township’s major dedication to the colony and the Butler family, beyond a humble display and plaque at the Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum.

There’s also a small cemetery just outside Lucan that is the final resting place for some descendants of the Wilberforce Colony.

Though Lucan-Biddulph Township’s Wilberforce elementary school is named for the settlement, many in the area aren’t familiar with its history.

Thornton hopes the mural helps spark interest in her family’s heritage and the Wilberforce Colony.

“I’ve been contacted already by people who have seen it,” she said. “It’s already starting to spread the story a little bit.”

Mayor Cathy Burghardt-Jesson said the mural, painted by London artist Andrew Gillet, reflects an important part of the area's history.

“I really do think of us as a welcoming community,” she said. “I believe it probably started with this story.”

MaxMartin@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/MaxatLFPress

Established in 1841 near present-day Dresden by escaped slave Josiah Henson of Maryland. This site was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Today, it’s commemorated as Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.

Founded by Irish-born Rev. William King in 1848 in South Buxton, near present-day Chatham-Kent. Eventually home to some 1,000 freed slaves.

Home to some 30 families fleeing slavery in the late 1830s, the settlement was in Sandwich East in present-day Tecumseh, Essex County.

Located north of present-day Kitchener, near Glen Alan. It was home to more than 1,500 free and formerly enslaved Blacks, starting in about 1820.

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press