Looking at the legacy of thousands of black slaves who fled to Canada in the 1800s
Laura Czekaj, Canada Foundation for Innovation
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In the 19th century, the feet of former American black slaves wore a path from captivity to the southern Ontario settlements they saw as places of freedom and deliverance, a land of promises fulfilled.
The journey of thousands of fugitive slaves and free North American blacks along the Underground Railroad created communities in areas such as Chatham-Kent County, where powerful ideologies of freedom, identity and citizenship were generated. They formed a foundation on which black Canadians worked to abolish slavery in the United States and to protect civil rights in Canada and abroad.
The contributions of the African-Canadian community are celebrated each February during Black History Month, yet according to a University of Ottawa researcher, the impact of the former American slaves on the development of our country has been largely forgotten.
"Most of the time, we forget what we have fought for and where we are coming from," says director of the Audiovisual Media Lab for the studies of Cultures and Society (AMLACS), Boulou Ebanda de B'béri. "What these people were fighting for was a civil society, the right to vote and to be heard — the same values we share today." De B'béri aims to correct this historical amnesia through his collaborative work on The Promised Land Project, an examination of the freedom experience of the 19th-century black pioneers in the Chatham and Dawn settlements.
The interdisciplinary project combines the expertise of national and international researchers in its goal to preserve and make accessible archival sources, to develop educational materials and to create community projects.
As one of many stops on the clandestine network of safe houses along the Underground Railroad, these settlements became home to hundreds of free blacks, whose relationships with white and aboriginal communities have provided researchers like de B'béri with details about how the different races interacted.
It was during a camping trip through Chatham with his five-year-old son in 2005 that de B'béri was first introduced to the black history of the area and, in particular, the role of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an abolitionist, women's rights activist, educator and newspaper editor in the mid-1800s.
The fearlessness of this pioneering woman, who strove for equality among the races, prompted de B'béri to pursue a path of academic exploration that he now realizes has become a lifelong obsession.
Today, the settlements that were once a diverse mix of races have become more homogenous. When slavery was abolished in the United States after the Civil War, many of the former slaves left the communities for destinations across Canada or rejoined their families.
Bryan Prince, a sixth-generation descendant of black slaves, says the Ontario settlements provided shelter and safety at a time when both were a rarity for an escaped slave. "When the people were still enslaved, they had these visions of Canada — of Queen Victoria's land — and the promise that it held," he says. "That was why it was such a magical, mystical place for so many."
Boulou Ebanda de B'béri will be attending the 2014 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences to present as part of a roundtable, “The Quebec Charter of Values: A Moral Panic?” at the Canadian Communication Association conference on Wednesday, May 28. This article originally appeared on Innovation.ca in February 2009. Since then, Boulou Ebanda de B'béri co-edited a book titled The Promised Land Project: History and Historiography of Black Experience in Chatham-Kent and Beyond, due out this summer from the University of Toronto Press.