Remembering our History
What is now known as Black History Month started in Canada in the late 1920s and mirrored what was happening in the U.S. at the time. African-American historian Carter G Woodson proposed to set aside a time to honour the accomplishments of African Americans and to bring a greater awareness of Black History in the U.S.. Negro History Week was established in 1926 and was adopted in Canada shortly thereafter.
In the 1970s the week became a month. February was officially recognized as Black History Month by the House of Commons in December 1995 following a motion introduced by the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. The motion was expanded by Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, in February of 2008 to further recognized the contributions of Black Canadians.
Ontario has a special connection that intertwines both the black community and the literary community in the form of Josiah Henson and the Dawn Settlement.
Henson was born into slavery in Maryland in the 1790s. He found comfort in his faith and was a preacher and later an ordained minister. In 1829 he arranged to purchase his freedom with money earned through his preaching but was betrayed and taken to New Orleans to be sold. He escaped and fled North with his wife and children using the Underground Railroad.
After his arrival in Canada in 1830 he quickly became a leader in the Black community and on the Underground Railroad in Upper Canada.
He helped to establish a community where Black people could share skills, labour and resources to help each other and new arrivals called the Dawn Settlement. A key element of this settlement was a vocational school he co-founded called the British American Institute that taught a variety of skills to the community. Henson advocated in support of literacy and education for Blacks, led a Black militia unit during the Rebellion of 1837, and helped Black Canadians to join the Union Army to fight against slavery in the American Civil War, among his other accomplishments.
In 1949 Henson’s autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself was released. Between 1849 and 1883 six editions were published. His memoirs were later used by Harriet Beecher Stowe as reference material for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, the Museum that stands on the site of the Dawn Settlement is referred to as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.” Henson died on May 5, 1883.
Allison the Bookman has its own contribution to the month, in the form of Esther Allison, who was the first Black woman business owner in North Bay. Gord and Esther were married in 1947 in Brantford Ontario at S. R. Drake Memorial Church, a prominent Black church with its own ties to the Underground Railroad. At the time, they were unable to find a church outside of the Black community that was willing to marry them. This is unsurprising coming just 1 year after Viola Desmond made her stand in a movie theatre in Nova Scotia and considering that the last segregated school in Ontario wouldn’t close for another 18 years, and the last one in Canada closed in 1983.
In terms of relevant reading for the month, there is the obvious prior referenced Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Life of Josiah Henson.
Let us also suggest the following:
The Hanging of Angelique by Dr. Afua Cooper. The book tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave who was tortured and hanged in Montreal in 1734 for allegedly starting a fire that engulfed 40 buildings in Montreal. The book is a first-hand account of a slave’s story and illustrates what slavery was like in Canada.
A Safe Haven: The Story of Black Settlers in Oxford County by Joyce Pettigrew. The book tells the story of the first families in the Otterville area who sought security from the hardships of slavery and their past lives in Canada. The book recounts the original Black settlers who arrived in the 1830s with the help of Quakers from Norwich Township and their descendents.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. The fictional account of an 11-year-old slave boy on a Barbados sugar plantation. He develops a close bond with his master, Englishman Christopher Wilde. After a man is killed Wilde must choose between his family and saving the boys life - his choice results in an unforgettable adventure.
Things Are Good Now by Djamila Ibrahim. This short story collection looks at the migrant experience. It examines themes of displacement, disillusionment and hardship set in East Africa, the Middle East, the U.S. and Canada.
There is no shortage of relevant material from Black Canadian authors. It’s good to be aware of the lense through which you are reading and trying to keep a diverse authorship. Differing perspectives lead to fascinating and differing adventures and lessons.