Amherstburg Freedom Museum

Family Histories



For May we are highlighting the Davis family. Did you know the Davis family, one of Essex County’s most distinguished families, settled in the area in the 1840s? Those are deep Canadian roots.

The family patriarch was James Davis Sr. and he was born into slavery in Oldtown, Virginia on March 3rd, 1818. He courageously escaped enslavement in 1849 and lived in Fort Erie for a short time. The following year, in 1850, James braved the terrifying journey back to rescue his family from the plantation where they remained following his escape. He and his family arrived on the dock at Malden (Amherstburg) on 15 October 1850, and lived in Amherstburg until the spring of 1851, when he purchased the west half of lot 14 on the south side of Malden Road, in Colchester North. It was there that James remained for the rest of his life.

Knowing what it was like to live without an education, James was determined that his children would have more opportunities than he did. James, along with other residents of Colchester North, hired a “private lady teacher” to instruct the children of the area, including his own. This was before a school was established in the area, which demonstrates James’ dedicated to education and the enhancement of the next generation. He probably changed a lot of children’s lives by bringing a school to the area, but he didn’t stop there. Did you know after a school section was formed, James was elected as one of its trustees, a position he held for several years.

James Davis Sr. died on 23 July 1892, at the age of 74, and was buried at Union cemetery at New Canaan. At the time of his death, he had ten grandchildren and one great grandchild. The service was officiated by the Reverend L. Pierce, with the help of the Reverends J.S. Masterson, W.S. Kane and G.W. Walls. In a poetic end, one of James’ pall-bearers, William Edwards, arrived in Canada on the same boat that landed James and his family in Amherstburg in 1850.

Deep Canadian Roots in the Davis Family – Part 2

James and his wife, Anne, had three children: Harriet, James Jr. and Delos Rogest Davis. Harriet was born on 16 February 1848 and went on to marry Griffith Booth, residing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Interestingly, family lore says that James Jr. was born on the Potomac River on 17 March 1840, and later married Mary Jane Lewis on 24 December 1862. He lived in Colchester North and had three children: James was born in 1866, while Walter, became the Reverend Walter Davis and married Susan Hawkins, daughter of Washington Hawkins. James Jr. and Mary Jane’s third child, Ann, was married Dan Woodson.

Of the three children, Delos Rogest Davis is the most well known. He was born on 4 August 1843 and became the third Canadian Black lawyer in the history of Canada, but also the first Underground Railroad freedom seeker to become a lawyer in Canada. His journey to that point was very difficult. On 19 June 1873, he qualified to practise as a notary public, but racism prevented him from finding a lawyer willing to work with him so that he could gain further experience. Before taking the entrance exam, it was required that individuals studying law must article for a period of time under the guidance of a lawyer, but Delos could not find anyone who would oblige his request.

What might come as a surprise is that in 1884, Delos was able to convince William Balfour, MPP for Amherstburg, to introduce a special law that permitted him to act as a lawyer, but he had to pass a test from the Law Society of Upper Canada and pay a standard fee before the law would take effect. Delos passed the examination and was sworn in on 19 May 1885. The following year, William Balfour introduced a second special request, which allowed Delos to become a barrister upon passing the requisite exam. He was called to the bar on 15 November 1886 and in the following year … To be continued. Don’t worry.

Deep Canadian Roots in the Davis Family – Part 3

1887, he started a law practice in Amherstburg. Among the locations of Davis’ law practices is 159 Gore Street. From 1889 until 1909, Delos Davis’s law office Davis and Davis was located here.  Although Delos focused on criminal and municipal law, his specialty was drainage litigation. He was also appointed to the King’s Counsel on 10 November 1910, the first Black person to have this honour in the British Empire. What an impressive life.

Ever wonder about Delos’ personal life? Delos was married twice. The first marriage was to Jane Mitchell in 1868 and they had three sons (Delos Jr., Fred and James) and four daughters (Nora Evaline, Wava, Clara Ann and Bertha). Sadly, Jane passed away during childbirth in 1893. His second marriage was to Mary Jane Banks in 1907. Of the children from his first marriage, Clara Ann was born in 1873, while Bertha was born in 1877, and Wava was born in 1893, later marrying Alfred Anderson. Nora Evaline married Marshall Dean and they had five children: Cleo, Flora and Florance,(who were twins), and Veola and Davis (who were also twins).

Within the Amherstburg Freedom Museum collection, there is more information about the sons of Delos and Jane. Delos Jr., born in 1875, became a conveyancer (transfers the legal title of property from one owner to another) and notary public. Interestingly, both Delos Jr. and Fred continued their father’s legacy of practising law. Fred Homer Alphonso Davis became the second Black lawyer to be called to the Ontario bar. Fred was born in Colchester North in 1871 and was the eldest son of Delos and Jane.

Deep Canadian Roots in the Davis Family – Part 4

Before attending Osgoode Hall, Fred Davis graduated from Windsor Collegiate and taught at Pleasant Valley in Colchester South for a short time. It was in 1897 that he entered Osgoode Hall in Toronto and graduated in 1900, upon which he was called to the Ontario bar. Did you know that after he returned to Amherstburg, where he lived on Sandwich Street, he joined his father in the Amherstburg law firm of Davis and Davis until 1905? The office was originally in a building where Jere Mailloux’s bowling alley was located on Apsley (Sandwich) Street, but they later purchased a stone office on Ramsay street from J.H.C. Leggatt.

When Delos Sr. died on 13 April 1915 in Anderdon Township, Fred succeeded his father
as Town Solicitor and held this position until his own death in 1926. Fred’s specialties were real estate and municipal law and he was a strong supporter of the Conservative party. He was even the president of the local association and during election time was one their best platform speakers.

Fred married Mary A. Thomas and was a member of the A.M.E. Church for 25 years. He was also active in the Royal Arch and Damascus Commandery and was a Past Master of Amherstburg’s (Masonic) Lincoln Lodge No. 8, of which his father was also a member. In Fred’s obituary it mentions that “his library of books on Masonry is very complete” and that his funeral was under “Masonic auspices.” He was described as “an outstanding example of what ambition, energy and native ability can get anyone in this country, even from a lowly beginning.” An inspiring message to pass on.