To cap off Black History Month, I thought this week we would veer away from focussing on the subject of slavery and turn our attention instead to an exploration of ‘the Bog’, where could once be found Charlottetown’s black community. Home to freed slaves and their descendants throughout the 19th century, it was a region in the west-end portion of the city’s original 500 town lots, bordered by Euston, Pownal, Richmond, and West streets. Here’s a graphic to give you a visual sense.
Recognize the area? I imagine you probably do. Today, a large section in the centre of it has been physically altered by the construction of provincial government offices (Shaw, Sullivan, and Jones buildings),as well as a sizeable parking lot, begun in the mid 1960s, and the streetscape in general has been improved.
So what’s the deal with the Bog, anyway?
The story begins with one Samuel Martin, known widely as “Black Sam”. In 1812, he began to petition for a small plot of land at the bottom of Fitzroy Street bordering on the south side of Government Pond (now a parking lot). Given that he was black, not to mention a former slave, council wasn’t all that keen on the idea, and did what it could to find anyone else who might be able to lay claim to that property. Martin persisted, submitting additional petitions and – whether he actually obtained title to the land, or squatted on it – took up residence there a couple of years later. And thus the Bog was born.
“Black Sam” Martin is an interesting character, a person who became a legend in his own day. It’s believed that he was born sometime in the 1750s, and he passed away for certain in November 1863, aged at least 100. After obtaining his freedom, he was a licensed chimney sweep, a profession he practiced into his seventies, and he even operated something of a notorious bawdy house (not uncommon in the Bog) into his eighties. For many years before and after his passing, a small span that crossed over Government Pond (where today Euston Street meets Brighton Road) went by the name “Black Sam’s Bridge”. Sometime before 1812, Martin married another former slave, Kesiah Sheppard (Wilson). Kesiah, or ‘Kissy’, had previously been married to David Sheppard, who disappears under unknown circumstances from the historical record around 1802. Together, she and Martin would have two daughters.
When Martin settled in the Bog, there was as yet no established community of African-Islanders in Charlottetown; however, it wasn’t long after that one began to develop as slavery increasingly became a thing of the past. Throughout the 19th century, individuals with surnames such as Byers, Carpenter, Crosby, Sheppard, Bass, Jackson, Mills, De Courcey, Ryan, Potter, and Stiles would become part of the fabric, toiling in a variety of working-class capacities. But the Bog wasn’t just the enclave of Charlottetown’s African-Islanders. Joining them was an even greater number of whites who found themselves at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
Inevitably – and really through no fault of its own – the Bog gained a reputation as something of a slum region. Land there ranked as some of the least desirable in the capital, and therefore was some of the cheapest to be had. It was marshy (hence the name), tended to attract people (especially African-Islanders) who were largely impoverished and marginalized, and had a high(er) concentration of “questionable” locations such as bawdy houses. To make matters worse, before Charlottetown instituted a sewerage system, it was not uncommon for people to dispose of waste in the adjacent Government Pond, rendering it rather unpleasant.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Easily the most important institution in the Bog was the educational establishment known simply as the Bog School. A saving grace in a destitute locale, it was established in 1848, intended to cater to poor(er) children in the area, black and white alike, and was built at the corner of Rochford and Kent Streets on land donated by Captain John Orlebar (later Admiral John Orlebar). From April 1848, when the school opened its doors, Sarah Harvie, the daughter of Nicolas Harvie who operated the jail (‘Harvie’s Brig’) on nearby Connaught Square, assumed the duties of educator, a capacity in which she would tirelessly serve for over five decades.
Like other schools during this period, the Bog School was denominational, and fell under the auspice of the Church of England (Anglican). Until 1877, the education system on the Island was ruled by religion, with separate schools for Catholics and Protestants. It had increasingly become a contentious issue, and by the 1876 provincial election it actually created political schisms. That year, a Protestant Liberal/Conservative faction known as the “Free School Coalition” faced off against their Catholic counterparts (the Denominationalist Coalition). The former advocated for a school system not centred on religious divide, while the latter ran on a platform to maintain the status quo. The Free Schoolers won the election and passed the Public School Act the next year, which did away with a denominational school system (in principal; in practice, it took a bit longer).
In 1868, the original Bog School had been replaced with a newer, larger structure at the same location, and continued to be operated by the Church of England (despite the events of 1876/7), remaining in use for another four decades until December 1903 when, after 56 years at the helm, Sarah Harvie was forced to retire her post, and the vacancy she left was never filled. Instead, the Bog School close its doors, and its students transferred next door to West Kent.
When the Bog School was boarded up following Sarah Harvie’s departure, the Bog itself (as a community of African-Islanders) had just about reached the end of the line. It was a decline that had actually been playing out over the previous fifty years, beginning in the mid 1850s, from which it never bounced back. Part of this decline can be attributed to outmigration – some people simply up and moved away. African-Islanders only ever formed a small percentage of the Bog’s overall population, at its height numbering about 100. By 1881, less than 84 persons residing in the Bog were recorded as black. Intermarriage was another factor. The Bog was home to a greater number of whites than blacks, and as a result unions between the two were inevitable, unions that quickly obscured African-Islanders as a visible minority. None of this was helped by the fact that the Bog wasn’t able to shed the “slum” stigma attached to it, and remained an area of poverty into the latter part of the 19th century, never quite progressing as did other parts of the city.
While the Bog was a feature of the Charlottetown landscape for the better part of a century, you’ll find no formal monument today that hints at its existence, no physical reminder of the community of African-Islanders that once lived there. Nothing. In 2013, applications were submitted to P.E.I. 2014 Inc., the government body responsible for coordinating the year-long celebration in 2014 of the sesquicentennial of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference. Money had been authorized to be granted to a slew of arts and culture projects aimed at commemorating the event, and to serve as a legacy. Jim Hornby, author of Black Islanders, took the lead on three applications in a bid to secure the funds for projects to highlight the Bog as it existed in 1864, and the African-Islanders who called it home. All three were shut out while other (dubious) projects were given the go-ahead, and a good deal of financing.
I remember being incredibly disappointed at the time, but not at all surprised. As I’ve said the before, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Historically, African-Islanders (by and large) have been ignored and often mistreated, and it remains the case today. The purpose of these past four weeks has been to highlight said heritage and shed a bit of a spotlight on it. If it’s caused you to stop and reflect at any length, then mission accomplished.
But we still have a long way to go.
PEI History Guy