‘If These Four Walls Could Talk’: The Griffin House, An Agent of Change

By Juliana Springer

Enerals Griffin was about 41 years old when he arrived in Ancaster Township (present-day Hamilton, ON) where he purchased a house set upon 50 acres of land. With land and water routes along the Niagara Peninsula and Lake Ontario, Ancaster was a prime location for those fleeing slavery and persecution in the United States in the mid-19th century. Enerals was one of the first Free Black people to settle in the area in 1834.

A Freedom Seeker who had been born into slavery on a Virginia plantation around 1793, Enerals settled first in Ohio, then the Niagara region, when race riots pushed many free Black settlers out of the state in 1829.[1] Unlike many self-emancipators who made their homes in Upper Canada, Enerals did not join planned Black settlements like the Wilberforce Colony or Dawn Settlement, or an unplanned one like Hamilton’s “Little Africa.”[2] Instead, he and his European-descended wife made their home in the predominantly white community of Ancaster.[3]

Griffin House

Today, their house lives on as a physical monument to the more than 200 Black people who resided in the area by 1865. As a museum, Griffin House is dedicated to telling the Griffin family’s story as well as the region’s broader Black history. The way the story has been told has shifted over the past three decades and continues to change in response to community and scholarly feedback. The museum has, however, consistently combatted views of Freedom Seekers as passive beneficiaries of benevolent Canadian aid by presenting Black settlers, like Enerals, as agents of change.

One of the few tangible reminders of Hamilton’s 19th century Black history, the homestead remained in the family for 154 years before the Hamilton Region Conservation Authority acquired it in 1988.[4] Griffin House was restored to its pre-1850 appearance between 1992 and 1994, opened in 1995, and designated a National Historic Site in 2008.[5]

Central to Griffin House is how Enerals and his family contradicted “the common image of Black immigrants as destitute” and needing government hand-outs.[6] According to both the virtual tour and onsite panels (particularly 2 and 3), Enerals was prosperous and independent, managing “one of the best farms in the country,” and paying an “unusually large sum for the times” for his property. His family also contributed to the community as hotelkeepers and amateur veterinarians, among other roles.

In promoting the idea that African Americans/Canadians have historically been agents of their own change, the museum holds up Enerals as a key example because he claimed his freedom by forging slave documents.[7] After arriving in Upper Canada, Enerals continued to advocate for change. He was a community leader, who organised conventions and started petitions, pushing the government to stop kidnappings of former slaves and loosen citizenship requirements.[8] Similarly, Panel 3 mentions that Hamilton Mountain’s Black residents petitioned their governor due to the “strong prejudice” against Black children in schools, noting that they themselves had to “step in to fill the gap.”[9]

While the site has been celebrated for its nuanced exploration of Canadian Black history, Griffin House has also been a site of opposition and protest. Scholar Melissa Zielke explains that there was significant resistance to the house being converted into a museum in the first place. As Zielke reports, many community members opposed initial proposals to restore and preserve Griffin House in the 1990s. They cited concerns including noise, increased or disruptive traffic, high costs, and the addition of a parking lot for the museum being an eyesore.

Despite these outwardly aesthetic or fiscal concerns, it was clear to some contemporary observers that these complaints were, in reality, based in racism. One counsellor said he heard locals at a committee meeting state that “they didn’t want coloured people in the valley.” After it was announced that the restoration project’s budget would be cut from 120K to 40K, this counsellor opined, “I truly believe that if Mr. Griffin had been white, the project would be going ahead with all the support and interest it deserves”.[10]

This opposition is also reflected, in part, in the way the museum interprets Canada’s history of racism and oppression. The language employed seeks to highlight Black experiences of racism while seeming hesitant to plainly identify the racist policies or people responsible.

Some panels at the museum aptly explore our nation’s history of segregation, showing, for example, that only a small number of Black children were allowed to go to school. In another example, discussion surrounds the unequal representation of “coloured” citizens in employment.

Yet, at other times, there seems to be a complete miss.

In describing the Griffins’ religious affiliations and worship practices in Ancaster’s early Black community, the museum interpretation neglects to mention segregation in churches. African Canadian congregants would have felt this overtly initially, when separate Black and white churches were the rule of the day, and later in practice when pew taxes were implemented to restrict Black congregants to the seats at the back.[11] Even so, Griffin House is one of the few spaces in Hamilton (currently) where Sophia Pooley, one of the region’s first known enslaved Black residents, is formally acknowledged.[12]

Even as the museum acknowledges Hamilton’s racist past, the panels only rarely (and even then, often inadequately,) identify the oppressor. Zielke, writing in the early 2000s, attributed this absence as the museum going “soft” in light of “lingering worries and fears” from when homeowners fought against Griffin House becoming a tourist attraction.[13] In other words, that the museum had intentionally softened Hamilton’s history of discriminating against Black people to avoid backlash from the community.

Other times, in the present interpretation, the museum is more conservative in its representation of Black activism in Hamilton.

For example, in referencing the Auchmar Estate’s Emancipation Day, the panel explains that in 1859, “Over 500 black guests… came from all over the region to enjoy the festivities. They feasted on roast beef, fowl, pies, pastries, oranges, and lemonade under the shade of orchard trees. The party continued into the evening with speeches, music, and dancing.” This depiction of events, as a celebration of Canadian Emancipation in 1834, is incomplete. It neglects to mention that the Black community also used these types of events to organise against American slavery, injustice within their Canadian communities, and unify American and Canadian activists.[14]

The museum is similarly tame in stating that the Black community wanted an “equal share of the pie” in employment, rather than recognition, inclusion, and justice. Although the museum states that the Black community faced discrimination in employment and education, they do not explore white hostility towards the Black community any further, rarely naming sites of exclusion or individual actors.[15]

This hesitance can lead, as explored elsewhere in this series, to the perpetuation of myths about the underground railroad, even as the museum works hard to combat other stereotypes. Two decades after Zielke’s paper, vague and inadequate wording remain.

Although I, myself, could not visit the museum in 2022 because it remains closed for renovations, I (like many before me have done in this pandemic time) explored the museum’s virtual tour.[16] The tour allows online visitors to explore the small but well-staged home and read or listen to the story of Enerals and the surrounding African American community, including views of nine historical panels off the main entrance.

Despite some omissions, the museum has made significant strides in prioritizing input from the Black community, which ‘sings its praise’, and integrating into a network of African Canadian heritage sites.[17]

These improvements have been ongoing. Griffin House is currently undergoing a million-dollar overhaul, with improvements to the foundation, the first of three phases, ­to be completed this April 2023. The next phase will include improvement to the exterior, including window restoration, new paint, new porches, a better accessibility ramp and path from the driveway, expected to be complete in 2024. In the final phase, the museum will refresh the house interior in consultation with the community, through 2026.[18]

There is every reason to believe Griffin House’s facelift will be much more than superficial. Museum staff were eager to share that a community engagement committee has been working on a new outdoor information kiosk near hiking trails (accessed when the museum is not open), and museum materials are now vetted by Adrienne Shadd. Shadd is an historian, author, and faculty member at York University. She is also the descendant of famous abolitionists and activists Abraham Doras Shadd and Mary Ann Shadd. Mary Ann established The Provincial Freeman, the first newspaper published by a Black woman in Canada.[19]

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Continued improvements at Griffin House promise to improve the museum’s ability to highlight the diversity within the Black community that settled in and contributed to the richness of the Ancaster area. Griffin House’s exhibits challenge stereotypes by highlighting Enerals’s atypical story, gives back agency to Freedom Seekers in telling their story, and teaches visitors about the discrimination experienced by the Black community in Canada’s ‘safe haven’. Perhaps this new attention can cure some of the reverberations of bad feelings from long-ago and signal the realization that the museum must continue to provide an authentic voice for under- and mis-represented people. The museum is an asset in teaching about Hamilton’s and Upper Canada’s diverse Black history. The museum has, from its beginning, striven to change the conversation about Canada’s discriminatory past. I can’t wait to visit again – in the spring, and this time in person!

Juliana Springer is an undergraduate student at Western University with interests in the histories of underrepresented communities and health sciences.


[1] Hamilton Civic Museum Virtual Tours – Griffin House, https://museumshamilton.com/#/pano/griffin-house-first-floor-sideroom, and panels 1 through 9.

[2] “…Shadd says it wasn’t Blacks who coined the name [“Little Africa”], but rather a Hamilton Spectator columnist long after members of the community had dispersed in the early 1900s to other areas of the city and province or returned to the U.S.” Mark McNeil. “Remembering Emancipation at Griffin House.” The Hamilton Spectator. August 2, 2016.

[3] Census numbers at the museum evidence the white community clearly outnumbering the Black community: “In 1861 Ancaster’s population had risen to 5,043 and the Black population also had risen to 52. The 1861 Hamilton census documented 498 Black residents in Hamilton proper and another 364 in the surrounding area.” (Virtual tour, “Black Immigrants in Ancaster and Hamilton”) Scholar John-Michael Markovic advises against relying on census numbers, arguing they are “wholly inadequate”. (Markovic 28) Regarding entering/departing Canada, Markovic explains this was partly because of higher mortality than birth rates, incorrect white labelling, and Blacks understandably remaining under-the-radar. (Markovic 7-8, 29-30) He also adds that estimates of African Canadians living in Canada West in 1861 “fluctuate wildly”, and that, according to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission of 1863, “the colored population [in Hamilton] is probably over 500, but the Census makes it only 62!” (Markovic 26-7, 28) However, even using his figures, it is obvious that Enerals lived in a predominantly white community.

[4] Directory of Federal Heritage Designations.“Griffin House National Historic Site of Canada.” Government of Canada. https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=11873

[5] Mike Pearson. “Ancaster’s Griffin House gains recognition.” HamiltonNews.com. August 2,
2012. https://www.hamiltonnews.com/news-story/5424594-ancaster-s-griffin-house-gains-recognition/

[6] Panel 3; John-Michael Markovic. “A Place to Call Home: African American Immigration and the Aftermath of the Underground Railroad 1850-1870.” Scholarship at UWindsor. October 2018. https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1067&context=major-papers, p. 4.

[7] Panel 2; Melissa Zielke, “Go Down Moses: The Griffin House and the Continuing Struggle to Preserve, Interpret and Exhibit Black History,” Material Culture Review 55 no. 1 (1 January 2002), para. 24.

[8] Panel 3; Hamilton Civic Museum Virtual Tours – Griffin House, https://museumshamilton.com/#/pano/griffin-house-first-floor-sideroom (“Kitchen” and “Basement”)

[9] Panel 7; Jon Wells, “Black history in Hamilton: A tour”, The Hamilton Spectator, 22 October 2022, https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2021/02/11/black-history-in-hamilton-a-tour.html

[10] Zielke, “Go Down Moses,” para. 12-16.

[11] Panel 7; Jon Wells, “Black history in Hamilton: A tour”, The Hamilton Spectator, 22 October 2022, https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2021/02/11/black-history-in-hamilton-a-tour.html

[12] Samantha Craggs, “Author says City of Hamilton is ‘aggressively’ removing his signs honouring a former slave,” CBC, Oct 6, 2021,
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/dundas-signs-honouring-slave-bylaw-1.6199206; “Testimony: Sophia Burthen Pooley,” The Highlands Current, 10 June 2022, https://highlandscurrent.org/2022/06/10/testimony-sophia-burthen-pooley/.

[13] On the main panel that draws attention to slavery (panel 5, entitled “From Slavery to Emancipation”), the museum acknowledges that “white men” sold 12-year-old Sophia Pooley to the well-known Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, but only mentions the rest of the story within the busy timeline on the last panel (panel 9), that Pooley was sold once more to Samuel Hatt who was not only an Ancaster resident but co-founder of Dundas; Zielke, “Go Down Moses,” para. 26.

[14] Panel 5; John-Michael Markovic, “A Place to Call Home: African American Immigration and the Aftermath of the Underground Railroad 1850-1870,” Scholarship at UWindsor (October 2018), p. 21.

[15] Panels 6 (employment) and 7 (education). The rare exceptions when the museum names the oppressor includes only when they say “white men” and Brant on panel 7, and Samuel Hatt on panel 9.

[16] This tour is available from the City of Hamilton among virtual tours of several other museums. This option was available pre-pandemic but has become more common for museums generally since Covid-19 forced many institutions to close or limit access. The tour is available here: https://museumshamilton.com/#/pano/griffin-house-outdoor

[17] Zielke, “Go Down Moses,” para. 2 and 17.

[18] Kate McCullough. “First phase of million-dollar Griffin House restoration set to be completed this spring.” The Hamilton Spectator. January 31, 2023.
https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2023/01/31/ancaster-griffin-house-restoration.html (This piece contains errors including that Enerals’s wife was a Black immigrant, when in fact she was of European descent.)

[19] Eli Yarhi and Clayton Ma. “Mary Ann Shadd.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. October 14, 2020. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mary-ann-shadd; AABR Authors “Adrienne Shadd.” Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), November 24, 2021. https://www.yorku.ca/laps/aabr-author/adrienne-shadd/

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