John Anderson's Story
Pt 1: Freedom Seeker, Brantford’s Racist Mayor, and The Power of Community
By Angel Panag
John Anderson. Stock Photo.
While names like Gretzky and Graham Bell are well known for their local connections, far fewer know the story of John Anderson. The both tragic and triumphant story of this African Canadian freedom seeker spanned three continents and four countries. Held in a Brantford jail cell, his court battle would garner international attention and help define Canadian sovereignty.
The story of John Anderson begins on a plantation in Missouri, where he was born into bondage. At the age of 20 he fell in love with a woman named Maria, who was enslaved on a nearby plantation. They courted, married, and eventually started a family of their own. Anderson would make the two mile trek to see his wife and kids most evenings. When his enslaver found out about this, he sold him off to a plantation 30 miles away. Upon arriving at the new plantation, Anderson vowed that he and his family would one day be free.
In his pursuit of freedom, an altercation occurred with a neighbouring white farmer. The farmer was stabbed twice, and he later died from his wounds. Fearing the repercussions, Anderson’s wife told him to leave without her and follow the North Star to freedom. He arrived in Windsor a couple months later, eventually settling in Caledonia. There, he earned a reputation as a skilled mason and plasterer, became a homeowner, and lived an otherwise quiet life.
Every Hero Needs a Villain
Anderson’s peace was shattered in April of 1860 after rumour of how he escaped caught the ear of William Matthews, a Brantford magistrate. Matthews took matters into his own hands ordering that Anderson be charged with murder and jailed. This is despite there being no formal charges against him in the United States, nor any evidence or witnesses to support the claim.
William Matthews was a notably racist man who held power in a notably racist town. Less than a year before Anderson was jailed, two Black men were publicly executed, as over 8,000 watched (Brantford’s population was only 5,000 at the time). The two men who could not read or write were executed on grounds of written confessions, while their accomplice - a white man, was sentenced to a jail term instead. Thirteen years prior to that, 15 Black families from Brantford were banished to the Queen’s Bush (Huron County area) on the grounds of “disorderly conduct”. It is important to note that of the ten executions occurring in Brantford between 1859 and 1932, eight of the executed were Black or Indigenous. The other two hailed from Malta and Armenia, who court documents indicate would have also been racialized as “foreigners”. Brantford was a rugged place, and an especially difficult place for people of colour to live in.
A crowd gathers to watch a public execution in the United States. Stock Photo.
A column in the Brantford Expositor expressed that the conditions of slavery would have been better than the extent of discrimination Black residents of Brantford had to endure. Between 1860 and 1870, it’s estimated that 70% of Canada West’s (as Ontario was known at the time) Black population migrated to the United States. Canada was certainly no promised land, and the prejudicial attitudes in Brantford would have been supported by some of its most powerful residents. In the 1859 election, one mayoral candidate expressed a desire that “all colored people in Brantford might be driven out of the country and sold into slavery”. Records indicate William Matthews held similar, if not as extreme beliefs. Matthews’ character was such that he would block polls at election time to sway the vote in his favour. His maltreatment of the town’s Black residents likely bolstered his public standing and helped his political career. He was elected mayor of Brantford three times between 1855 and 1874.
In a grave abuse of power, Matthews subjected Anderson to “the most rigorous prison sentence” possible over the next month. While the level of torture that Anderson endured is not known, just a year prior Matthews had seriously beaten a prisoner under his watch. He also barred any Black visitors from seeing Anderson, including Rev. Walter Hawkins - a respected spiritual leader in the Black church. These acts can only be understood in today’s terms as cruel and unusual punishment. Meanwhile, Matthews communicated with detectives in Detroit to present evidence of Anderson’s guilt.
While Matthews insisted that Anderson be extradited to the United States, he was soon released considering no evidence or witnesses were presented to support the charge. Representing Anderson was Hamilton-based lawyer Samuel Black Freeman, his name not lost to irony. Freeman would fiercely fight the subsequent trial which brought Anderson and his struggle to international fame (See Part 2).
The Role of Community
Upon his initial release, Anderson became a folk hero among Brant and Norfolk counties’ Black community. He travelled between households, where community members sheltered him from the gaze of the authorities. He was eventually cornered in the town of Simcoe and taken to jail to stand trial in Norfolk County.
The area’s Black community was determined to prevent him from being returned to the US, knowing the fate he would face. Perhaps aware of the racial climate in Brantford, they placed pressure on Norfolk County’s magistrate to keep him in the county instead. The magistrate held out for a month, though eventually caved to authorities in Brantford. On the night before Anderson was to be transferred, a group of Black men stormed the jail in a brave attempt to free Anderson. However, their efforts were thwarted and he was soon recaptured to be taken to Brantford Jail. The area’s Black community was so committed to Anderson’s release that they followed the police carriage from Simcoe to Brantford, protesting outside of William Matthews’ office, demanding Anderson’s release.
In the proceedings that would follow, community members and allies followed the proceedings to Toronto, packing the courtroom to show their support.
The Brant County Courthouse was completed in 1853. Stock Photo.
Felons of Hamilton, Halidmand and Brant - John D. Ayre - 2000
The Odyssey of John Anderson - Patrick Brode - 1989
Blood and Daring - John Boyko - 2013
John Anderson, Fugitive Slave - William Teatero - 1986
Behind Bars: Inside Ontario’s Heritage Gaols - Ron Brown - 2006
African Hope Renewed: Along the Grand River - Angela E. M. Files - 2004
The Anderson Fugitive Case - Fred Landon - 1922