Dresden

Dresden, Ontario, incorporated as a town in 1882, population 2,451 (2016 census), 2,385 (2011 census). Dresden is a community located in southwestern Ontario on the Sydenham River. The Dawn Settlement, near Dresden, was one of the final destinations of the Underground Railroad. In the mid-20th century, some businesses in Dresden became infamous for refusing to serve Black Canadians. (See Racial Segregation of Black People.) The town was merged into the new municipality of Chatham-Kent in 1998.

Dresden, Ontario, incorporated as a town in 1882, population 2,451 (2016 census), 2,385 (2011 census). Dresden is a community located in southwestern Ontario on the Sydenham River. The Dawn Settlement, near Dresden, was one of the final destinations of the Underground Railroad. In the mid-20th century, some businesses in Dresden became infamous for refusing to serve Black Canadians. (See Racial Segregation of Black People.) The town was merged into the new municipality of Chatham-Kent in 1998.


Colonization and Development

Dresden was founded in 1825 by a lumber merchant. It was named after the German city of Dresden. The Canadian town grew slowly as a lumber centre until the 1860s, when an influx of settlers arrived to settle the cleared land. By 1872, Dresden reached a sufficient size to be incorporated as a village; 10 years later, it received town status. With the trees cut down, the town evolved into a local agricultural service centre.

Today, the two largest industries are the manufacture of automotive parts and food processing, which utilizes the local tomato harvest.

Underground Railroad

In 1841, ReverendJosiah Henson, a former enslaved person from the United States, settled near Dresden. He helped establish the Dawn Settlement — a safe area for Black Refugees. Henson also helped found the British American Institute: a vocational school for the Black community. For many Black Refugees, the area of Dresden was the final destination on the Underground Railroad

Nancy and Josiah Henson.
Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy circa 1875. A former slave from the US, Henson helped to establish the British-American Institute, a vocational school and refuge for fugitive slaves (courtesy Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site).

Henson is reputed to have been the model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novelUncle Tom's Cabin(1852). His two-storey house, built around 1842, is now part of theUncle Tom's Cabinhistoric site in Dresden.

(See Black History in Canada until 1900.)

Racial Segregation

Around the mid-20th century, Dresden became the centre of attention on the issue of racial segregation of Black Canadians. At the time, many restaurants, cafés and barbershops refused to serve Black client. (See Black Canadians.)

Dresden Story, Julian Biggs, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

To change things, Hugh Burnett and members of the Black community organized under the National Unity Association (NUA). They pressured the town to ban racial discrimination. In response, a referendum was organized in 1949. Voters were asked if it should be illegal for restaurants to refuse serving people on the basis of their race, colour or religion. The initiative was rejected by a margin of five to one.

Activists continued to advocate against segregation. Burnett appealed to Premier Leslie Frost’s government which eventually introduced the Fair Accommodation Practices Act in 1954. The Act made it illegal in Ontario to deny services to people on the basis of their race. Nonetheless, due to lax enforcement, some restaurants in Dresden continued to refuse serving Black Canadians. Activists like Burnett and Bromley Armstrong challenged these racist practices and drew attention to the issue. They performed sit-ins to test businesses’ compliance with the law and invited journalists to report on their efforts. The focus was particularly on Kay’s Café whose owner, Morley McKay, angrily refused to serve Black people. Pressure mounted and court cases eventually punished businesses that did not respect the .

(See Black History in Canada: 1900-1960)