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Feb. 28, 2003

Black History Month: Multiculturalism at Work

The month of February is Black History Month and provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of multiculturalism as a part of our cultural heritage. With the Canadian Bill of Rights and Ontario Legislation, freedom is entrenched in law, and Canada is officially designated as a multicultural society. There is still evidence of prejudice and intolerance seen on a regular basis. Some of the treatment of Canada's First Nations people is a prime example. Black history, like First Nations history, is full of struggle and major achievements.

I have been spending some time in London and southwestern Ontario recently and have been looking at some of the extensive black history and black history celebrations here. Most of the original Ontario blacks came as Loyalists after the American Revolution (1775-1783) and many escaped slavery to come here from the United States through the Underground Railroad when the British Anti-Slavery Act was passed in 1793, providing limited freedom to adults and eventual freedom to children.

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad was not a railroad, but a network of hundreds of men and women who acted as "conductors" to various "terminals" in Ontario (Upper Canada), primarily in southwestern Ontario (see map). One celebrated conductor was Harriet Tubman, a black woman who made nineteen trips into the United Stated to bring back hundreds of freedom-seeking slaves to Ontario. American slave owners had a forty thousand dollar price tag on her head for her activities.

Map of black communities in southwestern Ontario.

Numerous communities had significant black populations where black businesses, schools, and churches were established. Many of these former sites have been preserved. Many blacks went on to make outstanding contributions to Ontario society. They were disproportionately over-represented in military conflicts that Canada was involved in over the years.

In the 1850s there were five hundred blacks in London, Ontario, and many in Lucan (Wilburforce), north of London. Two of the best-known communities in southwestern Ontario were at Buxton, south of Chatham, and in Oro Township west of Barrie.

Buxton Blacks remain in Buxton to the present day, and their history is well recorded in the Raleigh Township Centennial Museum there, and provides an excellent overview of the settlement. Two books The Legacy of Buxton by Mrs. Arlie Robbins, and I'd Rather Live in Buxton by Karen Shadd-Evelyn, by two black women with roots there, provide remarkable insight into the years of struggle and progress there.

The school at Buxton Ontario (c. 1910) now a part of the Raleigh Township Centennial Museum in North Buxton. Museum photo.

Dr. Fred Landon (1880-1969), the most outstanding London historian to date, wrote dozens of articles on black history -including on Buxton-over the years, both at the academic level and in a newspaper column in the London Free Press. It is with some satisfaction that the Ontario Historical Society's Fred Landon Award for Regional History was presented to my son and I last year, for our book The Fossmill Story.

The Landon award was presented to us by the president of the society, Dr. Bryan Walls, a fifth generation black from Windsor. His family preserved their old homestead and established the Underground Railroad Museum and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site near Windsor. Bryan's father fought a long and successful battle to become the first black member at the Essex County Golf Club. Bryan Walls book, The Road That Led to Somewhere (1980) is a novel built around Earl Walls, a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, and has been read by thousands including many high school students. Sylvia Smith of Powassan lived opposite the Walls for years in Windsor before returning here, and has great admiration for the family.

Oro Township's Black Settlement (1819-1949) Gary French, in his book Men of Colour (1978) provides a lengthy account of the black settlement in Oro Township, west of Barrie during the years indicated above. The Oro settlement was the only government sponsored black settlement in Ontario. By 1833 slavery had been abolished completely in Ontario. The Ontario government, partly to centralize blacks and to open settlements, provided cheap land grants to blacks who came from various locations.

The settlement had its own church, school, etc., and was quite successful for generations. The role of the Oro men in the Coloured Corps in the war of 1812 is well recorded. As white settlers came in and land prices rose, the blacks eventually sold their land and moved on to urban centres where more work was available, or back to the U.S. to be with relatives when slavery was abolished there.

Black History Month in London The London Museum sponsored a special day of films on Black History, including the powerful film Speaking for the Dead, which was produced last year. The film tells the story of an Ontario farmer ploughing over a black cemetery to plant potatoes, and the efforts of relatives to preserve their history and preserve the cemetery. London actor Richard Berry Harrison, whose parents were slaves, was the toast of Broadway in the 1930s, and was honoured last week with the naming of a park after him, near where he lived in south London. An historical plaque will be mounted in the park this spring.

The pastor of the Beth Emmanuel Church was the model for a character Harrison played successfully on stage. The Beth Emmanuel Church, which is a centre for Black activity, held a Black History celebration on February 23. A Black History Month Gala will be held from 11 am to 7 pm on February 28.
The Beth Emmanuel Church, London Ontario. Doug Mackey photo.

In the same newspaper that had the story of the new Harrison Park there was an old photo of twenty-two year old Ferguson Jenkins from Chatham, who played baseball in the major leagues for nineteen years and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is now the Commissioner of the newly formed Canadian Baseball League.

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