About the Author

Hilary J. Dawson

Hilary J. Dawson is a senior historical researcher at York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute, where she works to bring African-Canadian history into Ontario classrooms. She has worked at numerous museums and is a member of the Ontario Genealogical Society and the Ontario Historical Society. She lives in Toronto.

Books by this Author
A Black Family’s Journey

A Black Family’s Journey

From Slums to Establishment
also available: Paperback
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Isabella Sarah Euphemia Lafferty is a weighty name for a new baby, and with it the little girl carried a remembrance of her forebears. Throughout her life, she was known affectionately as Effie. Born in Guelph on 4th April, 1873, Effie was the daughter of Alfred Mitchell Lafferty and Isabella Eunice Russell Campbell. She was named after her two extraordinary grandmothers.

Effie’s maternal grandmother was Isabella Russell, who was born in Glasgow, and came to British North America as a girl. A devout Methodist, she had asked her betrothed, Laughlin Campbell, to endow the Sunday School library in Quebec rather than give her trinkets and gifts. They were married in 1826. Laughlin joined the Commissariat Department at the time of the Rebellions of 1837-8. Afterwards, he was posted to Penetanguishene, Upper Canada, where the couple moved with their four daughters. The girls were not yet 18 when Laughlin died. Jesse had married William B. Hamilton, and was living in Collingwood. Isabella took her three unmarried daughters, Isabella (Effie’s mother), Ann and Christina south to Richmond Hill. There, she established a private school for “Young Ladies” where she and her daughters Christina and Isabella taught.

Effie’s paternal grandmother was Sarah Cloud, a woman of African descent who had been born in the United States. Whether enslaved or free, it took courage to uproot, leaving family and friends, and move to a new country. We do not know what spurred Sarah to leave: bondage, abuse, or knowing that she would never have the same opportunities as white Americans. She may have been able to leave openly, or she may have spent weeks hiding, travelling at night, and relying on the occasional kindness of strangers. In Upper Canada, Sarah made a new life and a new family. In 1833, she married William Lafferty, another Black US émigré, in the little Town of York. (In 1834 it would be incorporated as the City of Toronto.) They worked hard to buy their first house on Stewart’s Lane, just east of St. James’ churchyard. It must have been exciting to see the result of their labour as an actual piece of property, even if it was in a slum area known as “the Devil’s Elbow.” Soon they invested in a second house as a rental property. And it was on Stewart’s Lane that their three sons were born: Effie’s father, Alfred, and his two brothers. Hard work allowed Sarah and William to buy more properties, move to a better area, open a provision business, then a grocery store, and buy a farm in the fertile agricultural township of Etobicoke. Best of all, they could give their four children (they had a daughter, too) a good education – something Sarah and William had been denied in the United States.

Euphemia was also a Campbell family name. Effie’s well-educated parents doubtless knew that this Greek name means “well-spoken.” It was uncommon in England, but had gone in and out of fashion in Scotland. The name saw a big revival when Sir Walter Scott named a character in his 1818 novel, Heart of Midlothian, Effie Dean. Isabella and Alfred had been married at the Port Lewis, Quebec, home of her aunt, Euphemia McNicol Campbell. Euphemia McNicol had arrived in Lower Canada in 1820 as a teenager, with her family and hundreds of other Scots, probably victims of the Great Highland Clearances.

Isabella Sarah Euphemia Lafferty bore the names of three strong women who had overcome the problems in their lives. She, too, would need strength to struggle with the prejudice and personal tragedy that the future had in store.

When Effie Lafferty was born, the Lafferty family lived in Guelph, near Guelph High School on Paisley Street, where Alfred had been principal since 1872. Their house was provided by the school. Effie will have been christened at the Norfolk Street Wesleyan Methodist Church in Guelph, where her parents were active members. Alfred was on the board of the church, and had been a local preacher for several years, ministering to small communities outside the town.

In 1875, when Alfred was invited to become principal of the Wilberforce Educational Institute (WEI), the family moved to Chatham. They first lived in a rented house on King Street, near First. In August, 1877, the Laffertys purchased a house on Thames Street, at the corner of Pitt, not far from the Fifth Street bridge, and much closer to the WEI. (In 1906 the house was designated number 58.) It was a brick house with eleven rooms, and a garden that ran down to the Thames River. It sounds attractive, but neighbours included Hadley’s lumber yard and J.M. Smith’s tannery. And, unfortunately, the Thames was prone to seasonal flooding.

The Laffertys joined Park Street Methodist Church, and Effie’s parents soon became actively involved. Alfred was a member of the Quarterly Committee, and when the church had financial difficulties in November, 1881, he was asked to prepare a statement to the congregation explaining the situation. Isabella was a speaker for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and in 1902 Alfred was a delegate to the Temperance Association, on behalf of the church.

Effie’s first lessons may have been at her mother’s knee. Scots have always prized learning, and to 19th-century African Canadians, education was the first step on the road to self-reliance. This may be why Mary Ann Nazrey (widow of Willis Nazrey, first bishop of the British Methodist Episcopal church) left 17-year-old Effie a legacy of $100. Later, her uncle, William Lafferty, would leave her the residue of his estate for her “higher education at the University of Toronto.”

For her secondary education, Effie went to Chatham Collegiate Institute. She had a flare for languages, and matriculated in 1891 with “University Honors” in French and German. Following in her father’s footsteps, Effie attended University College, at the University of Toronto. (Women were first admitted in 1884.) She graduated with a BA in June 1896, at the age of 23.

September found Miss Lafferty teaching at West Tilbury School Section 4, Comber, in Essex County. This may have been the four-room brick schoolhouse remembered in a local memoir. In 1898 she moved to the larger town of Wallaceburg to take over Miss McCallum’s Grade V class of 50 students at the Wallaceburg Public School. (It is interesting to note that at the 24 November, 1898, Commencement Exercises in the Opera House, Wallaceburg’s Mayor Gordon proudly proclaimed that “the average number of pupils per teacher was higher than in any other part of the province, and the cost of maintenance per pupil being below the average.” ) The monthly school reports in The Wallaceburg News and The Wallaceburg Herald give details of Miss Lafferty’s school career, as well as personal tidbits. Wallaceburg was closer to Chatham than Comber, and in October, 1898, (we read in The Herald) Effie spent time with Chatham friends; later in the month, her mother presented a paper at the WCTU Convention in Wallaceburg. In November, Miss Lafferty helped organise the ever-popular two-night Public Schools’ Concert, which was “packed to the doors.” Twelve of her pupils were listed on the “Honor Roll” for October, and fourteen for November. The larger Wallaceburg school gave her the opportunity to teach classics to the older students.

In January, 1899, Miss Lafferty was among those laid low by “grippe” (flu). In February, she organised a “boys’ chorus” in her class, and they performed at the Students’ Literary Association. By August, Effie’s substitute position seems to have become permanent, and she taught a Grade VII class through 1899-1900. At the October Commencement in 1899, she presented the certificates for “Model Drawing” and “Memory and Blackboard Drawing.”

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