The Black Canadian Experience: From the Underground Railroad to Black Canadian Studies Today
C.R. Gibbs, Historian of the African Diaspora
John W. Franklin, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution
Karolyn Smardz Frost, Executive Director, Ontario Historical Society
Anthony Sherwood, Actor, Director, Filmmaker
Harvey Amani Whitfield, Assistant Professor of History, University of Vermont
In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Canada Institute hosted an event on Friday, March 2, 2007, to explore new insights and perspectives into the lives of African American slaves and their struggle toward freedom. The event brought together prominent historians from Canada and the United States, who discussed the challenges faced by African Americans after resettling in Canada, as well as the need to look beyond the U.S. abolition experience in an effort to better understand the global movement and shared experiences that led to the end of slavery.
The Abolition of Slavery in a Global Context
John Franklin, program manager of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, provided the opening remarks for the event, discussing the obstacles he is currently facing in creating a physical venue for the Museum that provides visitors with an understanding of the importance of looking beyond U.S. borders when examining the African American slavery experience. According to Franklin, the historical record clearly shows that the U.S. abolition experience often has parallels and links to countries outside of the United States. It is important, he said, to educate visitors to the Museum of comparative slavery and emancipation movements that took place in other regions of the world in order to appreciate that the U.S. abolition experience, "is part of a much larger experience."
C.R. Gibbs, historian of the African Diaspora, echoed Franklin's remarks, stressing the importance of viewing the abolition of slavery as a historic global movement, rather than focusing solely on the U.S. experience. Historians, argued Gibbs, often neglect or downplay the African presence in Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Gibbs noted that slaves were brought to South America as early as 1501, and even fought in Santa Anna's army in the 1830s. Historians, he said, traditionally speak of Europeans and Native Americans as the sole founding groups of Mexico, often neglecting to recognize Africans as the third. Similarly, few know of the historic efforts of the close to two million Black slaves in Brazil who fought for their freedom and right to preserve their culture throughout much of the nineteenth century. Historical accounts of anti-slavery movements in both larger and lesser known regions must be brought to light in an effort to develop a more complete understanding of the far-reaching African experience to combat racism and slavery, he said.
The African American Experience in Canada
Canada was the main destination of passengers on the Underground Railroad seeking freedom and a new life. Although earlier scholars have discussed the fugitive slave colonies and rural settlements of Southwestern Ontario, said Karolyn Smardz Frost, executive director of the Ontario Historical Society, little attention has been paid to the "strong and vibrant" community that emerged in Toronto as a result of American slavery. Drawing on research from her new book, I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad , Frost discussed how Black settlers in Toronto united to combat slavery, as well as racial attitudes and social stigmas that limited opportunities for Blacks throughout North America.
Frost said that Lord Simcoe, Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor, attempted to abolish slavery upon his arrival in 1791. Anti-slavery legislation in Upper Canada led other parts of the British Empire by more than 40 years. Toronto, Upper Canada's only real urban center, attracted a disproportionate number of former African American slaves, many of whom felt more at home in cities and believed they would find more opportunity in a major urban center, said Frost. Toronto benefited from the newcomers who proved to be successful entrepreneurs and possessed skills in community development that would help lay the foundation of Black activism against the practice of slavery. By 1820, argued Frost, Blacks possessed the will, the numbers, and the leadership to begin forming their own institutions, the most important being the construction of Black churches: "The churches were not only the soul of the community, but its heart and mind as well."
Churches emerged as the primary staging ground to launch efforts to free Black slaves, serving as a location to hold meetings and political gatherings; they also acted as support centers to members of the Black community. By the mid-nineteenth century, Black Canadian settlers had begun to make major strides in combating racial norms, a fact highlighted by the election of Wilson Abbott as Local Alderman—Toronto's first elected Black official. In addition, the creation of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada in 1851 reflected the desire of the African American community in Toronto to abolish slavery in the United States. The Society was founded by George Brown who published anti-slavery speeches and commentaries denouncing the continued practice of slavery in the United States in his newspaper, The Globe; he and the Society also brought together leading abolitionists in North America.
Not all African Americans found liberty in Canada. Harvey Amani Whitfield, assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont, presented a darker side of the African American experience in Canada. While the stories of African Americans finding freedom in Canada are celebrated and well documented, noted Whitfield, the "continued enslavement" of other African Americans throughout the Maritime Provinces is another part of the African American experience that cannot be ignored. Reading passages from his upcoming book, Whitfield described the Maritime Provinces as an environment where "slavery flourished" and became home to several different diasporas of African American slaves and their owners by the late 18th century. Slavery lasted longer in Maritime Canada, he said, than it did in New England.
Once settled in the Maritimes, the experience of slaves varied greatly depending primarily on their location, owner, and skill-sets, said Whitfield. Although little is known about the lives of most African American slaves who relocated to the Maritime Provinces, historical records indicate that most lived and worked close to their owners; were employed as farm laborers or seamen; and originated from New York, Virginia, or New Jersey. Whitfield believes additional research needs to be conducted to learn more about the "contours of slavery and freedom" in the Maritimes, and explore how free Blacks interacted with their enslaved brethren.
From Activism to Filmmaking
Award-winning filmmaker and successful Canadian actor Anthony Sherwood discussed his work to overcome racist attitudes and expand the number of opportunities available to minorities in Canadian show business: "Controversy has always followed me as an actor because of who I am and the skin I walk in," he said. Sherwood recalled how the beginning of his thirty-year acting career was hindered by limited opportunities for Blacks on stage. In an effort to change this, Sherwood formed a Black Actors Association to lobby Canada's film and television industry for equal employment opportunities and greater representation of minorities in film. Although Sherwood was "blacklisted" from acting jobs for three years for what he says was an attempt on behalf of the Canadian television and film industry to "deter" future activism, his efforts eventually achieved considerable success. Today, he noted, every Canadian television network and film agency has its own multicultural policy, adding that he believes the work of the Black Actors Association he founded was "instrumental" in shattering racial barriers in the Canadian film industry. Sherwood has been working to tell the stories of important Black Canadians whose stories have largely remained untold; he spoke of Mathieu Da Costa, a Black navigator and interpreter who explored Canadian waters and who was able to interpret Mi'kmaq.
Following his presentation, Sherwood presented his new documentary film, Honor Before Glory , which he wrote, produced, and directed. Based on the diary of Reverend William White, the film follows the story of Canada's sole all-Black battalion, who served during the First World War. Two other films highlighting the struggles of African Americans to overcome racism and slavery were also shown. The first film, Black, Copper, & Bright was written by C.R. Gibbs and chronicles the lives of the men in the First Regiment—United States Colored Troops (USCT)—formed in the Spring of 1863, during America's Civil War; the regiment welcomed Black soldiers from as far as Canada. The final film, Freedom's Land: Canada and the Underground Railroad, is a documentary featuring the story of the Underground Railroad and how it emerged as a primary transportation route for Blacks seeking freedom in the decade leading up to the Civil War.
Drafted by Ken Crist, Program Associate
David Biette, Director, Canada Institute
UPDATE: On November 27, 2007, the Canada Council for the Arts announced that the Governor General's English language non-fiction prize was awarded to Karolyn Smardz Frost for her book, I've Got a Home in Glory Land, an account of slaves fleeing to Canada along the Underground Railroad. Please click here for more information.
- Event Program and Panelist Biographies and Historical Themes for the Black Canadian Events Series
- Black Freedom Days Fact Sheet
- UN General Assembly resolution on the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade
- 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
- Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Global Migratons, York University
- News Release
- Governor General Homepage
- James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies
- Commemorating the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act
- Commemorating the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act