Black History Education through the Archives of Ontario

(ActiveHistory is pleased to partner with the Archives of Ontario to present resources for educators on Black history in Ontario)

Alison Little

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Students at work during a Black history-focused workshop given by the Archives at Toronto’s Agincourt Collegiate Institute, February 2016.

As educators continue to build inclusive, diverse, and flexible learning environments for their students, there is an urgent need for resources to support critical engagement with the past. To assist classroom teachers, the Archives of Ontario has online resources and workshops that connect students with Ontario’s documentary Black history.

In the age of digital by default, the Archives of Ontario offers online Black Canadian history resources that enable students to view and analyze primary source documents on a platform that suits their location and research needs.

Our online exhibits let students examine records from our collection up close and on their own timetable, allowing them to observe, ask, and analyze – the keys to learning through primary sources. Among educators, there is a desire for first-person narratives, examples, and specific histories relevant to students in this province – to teach beyond the material provided by the textbook. It is here that the Archives of Ontario can support teachers and enrich classroom learning.

Developed to share our collection with a broad web audience, our online exhibits expand on Black Canadian histories taught by secondary classroom sources, illustrating major historical narratives through the lives of individuals. For example, the stories of Chloe Cooley, Sophia Burthen Pooley, Henry Lewis, Dorinda Baker, and others featured in our exhibit “Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada” provide students with primary sources to start a discussion of the history of slavery in this country. Another online exhibit, “The Freedom Seeker, the Life and Times of Daniel G. Hill,” traces the journey of the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and illustrates how archival records can provide a vibrant window into the past.

Other online exhibits highlight champions of Ontario’s Black history who made its preservation their life’s work. In “The Black Canadian Experience in Ontario 1834-1914: Flight, Freedom, Foundation” and “Images of Black History, Exploring the Alvin McCurdy Collection,” the importance of researcher Alvin D. McCurdy’s work becomes clear.

Students brainstorm how different types of archival records can teach us about people in the past, at Agincourt Collegiate in Toronto, February 2016.

Students brainstorm how different types of archival records can teach us about people in the past, at Agincourt Collegiate in Toronto, February 2016.

By focusing on the lives of individuals within these exhibits, students engage with textual and visual records that provide an intimate glimpse into the lives of historical actors; students can then analyze the impact of major historical narratives on individuals in the past, illustrating the layered histories visible through archival records.

While our online exhibits offer both students and educators primary sources through which they can study Ontario’s Black history, our educational workshops bring those sources to life and drive students to critically evaluate historical records. In sessions offered both at the Archives and in classrooms around the province, students are asked to discuss photographs, letters, newspapers, and textual records presented to make observations and analyse their findings. Using the six historical thinking concepts as a guide, our workshops then ask students to demonstrate their understanding and interpretation through written, oral, and creative activities tailored for their grade level.

Professional development workshops offered by the Archives focus on helping educators find and use records in our collection. These workshops support and enrich their classroom, share best practices, sample lessons and activities, and provide links to specific collections pertaining to Ontario’s Black history at the Archives of Ontario.

Teachers have requested from us more educational resources to support Black history-focused learning in Ontario classrooms. In response, the Archives is currently developing new materials that will broaden the scope of online exhibits and workshops offered. The focus of these new resources will vary, but all will seek to expand the diversity of Black Ontarian histories held by the Archives, and encourage educators to incorporate archival records into their classrooms and assignments.

Photographs, textual records and other primary sources that shed light on the stories of Black individuals and communities in Ontario offer an invaluable glimpse at people, places, and narratives far too often left out of the textbook. They also provide an opportunity to not only think about the work of Black Ontarians to organize and sustain their communities, but also address and explore the gaps in archival collections. Discover for yourself the online exhibits and workshops offered by the Archives of Ontario – a treasure trove of information to furnish the exploration of Black histories and their legacy in contemporary Ontario.

Alison Little is Senior Coordinator, Educational Programming & Exhibitions at the Archives of Ontario.

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