Every so often, someone makes profound and lasting impressions on one’s life and community. Such an individual was John Henry Alexander, my great-grandfather. I never knew him; he died before I was born. Even so, his presence, like a modest but charismatic actor in the wings, always seemed to hover nearby. This feeling was particularly strong when I visited my great-aunts in the Alma Street homestead, sitting in a great curved rocking chair, listening to the chiming of a wall clock, and breathing in the atmosphere of the old family home, while looking at a portrait of the tall, thin man.
The years leading up to the War Between the States were turbulent ones. Tensions mounted between the eleven agrarian slave-holding states in the South and the largely industrialized North. In Canada, Amherstburg, one of the main exit terminals of the famous Underground Railway, began to channel an ever-increasing number of fugitive slaves. Under the aegis of the British Empire, in which slavery had been banned in 1834, Canada West was the runaway slaves’ haven of relative safety: a place where a man could make a new beginning.
Such a man was one Thomas Alexander. Born into slavery in Germantown, Kentucky, Thomas once freed, traveled north. Accompanied by his British wife, Catherine Harding, Thomas settled in Anderdon Township, establishing a home by the river where they raised three children. One of them, John Henry Alexander, was born on the fifteenth of October, 1857.
Before the 1850’s, education was a much-valued, private affair for the privileged few. By the time John Henry began his education, public schools had been established throughout the region. After elementary school in Anderdon, John Henry graduated from Windsor High School. He was inspired to contribute to his community and trained for teaching at the London Normal School.
Upon graduation, John Henry taught first at Puce, then North Buxton in 1878. The following year he taught in Dresden before returning to Amherstburg, where he taught until his retirement in 1917, except for a temporary appointment in Tilbury in 1909. Wherever he worked, John Henry was much in demand as both an inspiring teacher and charismatic speaker.
In 1883, John Henry Alexander married Annie Crawford. Six years later he bought a large house and part of lot 12 on Alma Street from a Dr. Hobley. There, John Henry and Annie raised six children. The eldest, John Jr, was to become a physician. As a testament to their father’s zeal for education, three of the siblings joined the teaching profession. Mae, Arthur and Ethel all began their careers on the Six Nations Territory south of Brantford. Later Mae moved to Welland to teach. Arthur taught for thirty years in North Buxton, where he married, settled, and became the school’s much respected principal and community leader. Ethel felt called overseas to serve in British Honduras where she served as a teaching missionary.
In Amherstburg, one of John Henry’s strong suits was the teaching of music. The King Street School was noted for its singing. Mr. D. A. Maxwell, an inspector, always insisted that the children sing when he visited.
Schools in those early days were divided along racial lines: white and black. In spite of the enforced policy of segregated education, John Henry did much to break down this barrier. By providing an excellent education to his students, John Henry attracted the attention of white parents to his King Street School, where students of both races were welcome to attend.
Outside his school duties, John Henry served for twenty years as the Sunday school superintendent for the A.M.E. church. He also supervised boxing matches, dances, debates, and concerts at the school which became a community centre after regular hours.
As part of his civic commitment, John Henry served as a census taker in 1901. That he was later successfully elected to a four year term as a town councilor in 1923 is a tribute to the trust, respect and high regard of his community. For a time he was also a town auditor.
After he retired from teaching in 1917 at the Quarry School, John H. worked for the newly formed Brunner Mond Company (Allied Chemicals) in the time department. In 1930, he became town assessor until failing health forced him to give up this job in 1934. On August 31st 1935, exactly three weeks after the passing of his beloved wife, John Henry died peacefully at home as a result of a heart attack.
All in all, John Henry Alexander was, in a quote from Bicentennial Tidings, “always interested in promoting the welfare of his race; John Henry set an exemplary example.” Three generations later, we too must have felt his influence from the wings, because my brother, nephew, niece and cousins are teachers too.
An exhibiting painter and teacher, David V. Alexander is the great-grandson of John Henry Alexander.