Growing up close to the U.S.-Canadian border, just upriver from Detroit on the Canadian side, I was terribly naïve although I shouldn’t have been. My hometown was pretty white bread and it was exciting when we had kids from a black family enroll in the high school I went to. Having never met a black person, I pictured them as exotic and interesting. But the film stock of my romantic picture melted pretty quickly when I learned they were from Chatham, just down the road.
The eldest son, I think his name was Carl, had one of the coolest cars in town – a jacked up Chevy Nova Super Sport painted electric blue. On Friday nights you’d find him cruising between Tabs Drive-In and the A&W further downtown.
When I was old enough, I headed to Detroit for Tiger baseball games and concerts at the Fox Theatre and Masonic Hall. So the idea that there were two races (or more if you counted the Chinese family who owned the local Oriental restaurant) was well within my ken.
Fast forward 35 years and I was about to make an unsettling discovery that, in my early 50s, profoundly challenged the memories of the world I grew up.
I picked up an assignment from a magazine to travel the African-Canadian Heritage Trail (ACHT) that runs through the heart of southern Ontario – where I grew up.
After I finished writing the story, I canvassed a number of childhood friends with this question: “Do you remember ever being taught about the Black communities around Owen Sound, Dresden, Chatham, Windsor and St. Catharines and did you ever learn anything about the Underground Railroad? “
The results were interesting. Like me, many were older before they learned that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was right in our back yard. A number had heard of it, but were pretty much ignorant of anything else to do with Black history in our neck of the woods.
I felt cheated realizing I knew more about the Kings and Queens of England than the events occurring next door that helped to define my county.
By following the ACHT in the early fall of 2004, I discovered a new area of history to interest me – the Canadian side of slavery and rebellion.
In a nutshell, after 1833, British Canada – Upper, Lower and the Maritimes – became a haven for fugitives running away from slavery. Entire communities of former slaves grew up and prospered. Abolitionists like John Brown made Canada one of his active bases and, at the First Baptist Church in Chatham, actually planned the raid on Harpers Ferry that started the American Civil War.
Okay. So why didn’t I know this until I was in my 50s? Who was the wise curriculum developer who thought it more important I learn about some inbred British royal (don’t get me wrong I am a monarchist – but a Canadian first) than our part in one of history’s great controversies? If Dante ever returns, his first job should be to create a new level of hell for the education specialist.
What I learned in the course of researching this article would fill a book. “Aha!” thought I, “it should.” And so I put my pitiful brain into gear and started to write a novel that would encompass everything I learned.
One of the great lessons I’m learning by writing this book is how divided we are when it comes to history.
I have had Black historians try to exclude me from information because it is Black History and I am a middle-aged white guy. Royalists have insisted to me this country was founded exclusively by the English, and French settlers were a mere inconvenience that Wolfe took care of. What happened to the Iroquois and Blackfeet Confederacies? More than one person has tried to tell me the only things we should be studying are the effect of the fur trade and transcontinental railroad. Okay, so how about the Ukrainians who turned the prairies into a breadbasket? Or the Irish fishermen on the Rock (Newfoundland for non-Canadians)?
Local historians are filling in the blanks before it is too late, but the story of those histories is often not making it out into the broader cultural world. For some reason we consider it more important, and it has always been so in Canadian education, to preserve the histories of the places we came from than what we’ve done since we got here.
I’m an angry old man. I want to scream at the top of my lungs. I want to beat some politically correct character senseless. But most of all, I want my grandson to understand that there can be no ethnic claim on history. Our history is not Black or White, Chinese or First Nations.
It’s something that happened to build this country and the hardships suffered by Harriet Tubman and the Fugitives on the Underground Railroad are mine as well. And I want him to able to say with pride that our North American First Nations ancestors produced one of the first democratic systems in the world. I want all the kids of future generations, no matter what their ethnic background, to weep for their ancestors who died at Vimy Ridge and Dieppe.
Underground Railroad. Source Unknown.
Postcard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden, Ontario, Canada. Photograph Courtesy of WayneRay Personal postcard collection – Windfield Photographic Collection and Archives. Photo postcardby Roy Peckham, Beamsville, Ontario. Circa 1930
Henson family arrives in Canada. Photograph Courtesy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site