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Cornies: Slave chapel saviours must communicate better

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Let’s first say this: Almost everyone who’s come anywhere near the nearly-long effort to save London’s fugitive slave chapel, presently located on a church property on Gray Street, has been motivated by goodwill.

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Let’s first say this: Almost everyone who’s come anywhere near the nearly-long effort to save London’s fugitive slave chapel, presently located on a church property on Gray Street, has been motivated by goodwill.

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Certainly Harold Usher was, when, as a city councillor in 2013, he spotted plans to demolish the historic building, then on Thames Street, and launched a campaign to save it.

So were members of the fugitive slave chapel preservation project (FSCPP), when they approached the Heritage London Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation and private benefactors about helping to move and restore the building as a London-area Black history interpretation centre.

So was Beth Emanuel Church, when it was offered to host the ramshackle structure on its property until further arrangements could be made. Ditto the City of London, which, in 2014, supported moving the building to Gray Street with $60,000 and waived costs and fees.

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The same can be said for Good Foundation, which, in 2016, responded positively to FSCPP’s application for funds and cut a cheque for $25,000, only to pull it back 10 days later over some legal and governance concerns. Before the waters muddied, the foundation had indicated it was prepared to consider a request for a similar amount the following year.

And so was London Community Foundation, when, in late 2016, it agreed with Beth Emanuel Church and the FSCPP to accept donations and issue tax receipts related to the project.

Goodwill abounded. For the most part, it still does, despite the protracted timeline and the inescapable fact that, if the now-decrepit one-storey structure is to survive and someday serve as an interpretive centre, it must move again. Beth Emanuel’s congregants are being stretched just running its local ministry, let preserving alone the chapel.

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And that’s where, last summer, London and Middlesex Historical Museum, which runs Fanshawe Pioneer Village, entered the saga. It was prepared to consider moving the chapel from Gray Street to the village if the necessary resources could be found.

Monday night, the museum’s board hardened its resolve. It adopted a timeline, with benchmarks, on which the chapel’s move to the village could move forward. It committed $5,000 of its own funds to launch a fundraising campaign and hire an architect to begin preliminary drawings. And it authorized executive director Dawn Miskelly to apply for a federal grant, under the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, to support renovation and interpretation.

The board is determined to see the chapel moved, safe to work in and sealed from the elements by late this year. That’ll take about $300,000.

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“It’s got to get done and it’s got to get done now,” said museum board chair Thomas Peace, a Huron University College history professor. “Everyone wants to make this work. We’re going to take things a little more in hand.”

Apart from the money, hurdles remain. Peace is committed to working with city hall heritage plans on the necessary permits and modifications of the building’s heritage attributes. And the museum board, which has no Black members, is trying to narrow its cultural blind spot by soliciting counsel from the London Black history co-ordinating committee, the Congress of Black Women of Canada and Black Lives Matter London, among others.

Again, goodwill abounds. But to capitalize on that goodwill and cultivate even more of it, the project needs to step up its communications game.

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Five years ago, the FSCPP indicated in an email that it had raised about $35,000 for the project. That same year, Beth Emanuel’s treasurer wrote contributions to the cause had topped $100,000. At London Community Foundation, donations to date amount to $45,575, including the reissued $25,000 Good Foundation grant. Those funds will flow to the museum at the appropriate time, said LCF president Martha Powell.

So how much money, combined, is in hand for the chapel’s second move, renovation and interpretation? Even the major players don’t seem to know, exactly. That needs to be clarified; past and prospective donors deserve perfect accountability on that question.

On the eve of Black History Month, the museum’s anchor-leg effort to save the building provides a powerful, tangible opening for primary and secondary teachers across the city to tell the Black history of London: from Tony Small, who surveyed the forks of the Thames River three years before John Graves Simcoe did; to the dozens of influential Black businesspeople, athletes, artists and civic- folks who became integral parts of London’s cultural fabric over the centuries; to the story of a dilapidated chapel, now gasping for breath.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. cornies@gmail.com

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