PATTERSON, ROBERT J., slave and restaurant owner; b. in November 1809 in Richmond, Va; m. first Edith Bridges (d. 1881), and they had no children; m. secondly in 1882 Georgiana Sparrow; d. 2 Oct. 1884 in Saint John, N.B.
Robert J. Patterson was born a slave in Virginia and his first wife was also born in slavery. In 1842 he escaped to New York on a packet-boat and made his way to Boston where he remained for ten years. In the 1840s and 1850s, a number of escaped slaves came to Saint John and Patterson, hounded by fugitive slave hunters in Boston after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, made his way there in 1852. He remained in Saint John for the rest of his life.
In 1856 Patterson and other former slaves organized the “Emancipation Ceremonies” which were held annually in Saint John for several years to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833 and to urge the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Patterson and other former slaves gave speeches and sang anti-slavery songs at the celebrations which were attended by prominent whites and blacks.
About 1859 he opened an “oyster saloon” which developed into the “Empire Dining Saloon,” the most popular establishment of its kind in Saint John. He soon had an extensive clientele and became a prosperous and respected member of the community. He was well known for his contributions to charity and for his assistance to the needy, both black and white. Patterson was a member of a small group of blacks who became successful businessmen in Saint John in the second half of the 19th century, and in 1860 he was made a free man of the city which allowed him to operate a business, a privilege accorded to few blacks in this period. He was involved with other blacks in the establishment of St Philip’s Methodist Church, which opened in 1870, and he was one of the first trustees of the church. A popular man whose friendship was esteemed by many prominent citizens, Patterson was described at his death as “one of the most popular caterers in the Dominion of Canada.”
Daily Sun (Saint John, N.B.), 3, 6 Oct. 1884. Daily Telegraph (Saint John), 3 Oct. 1884. Morning News (Saint John), 6, 11 Aug. 1856; 5 Aug. 1857; 6 Aug. 1858. Saint John Globe, 13 Dec. 1886. Hutchinson’s St. John directory . . . (Saint John, N.B.), 1863–64. McAlpine’s St. John city directory (Saint John), 1872–73, 1875–76, 1879–80.