By Erin Isaac
In Canada, and Ontario in particular, we love to celebrate the Underground Railroad during Black history month. We celebrate Freedom Seekers, Black Underground Railroad Conductors, and walk or drive “Freedom Trails” with little mind to the Black histories that came before or after this period—a period that spanned the early 19th century, but most notably the years between the American Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and Emancipation (1863). There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating this part of our nation’s past, but scholars have become evermore frustrated with the historical myths that frequently accompany these stories.
Chief among these historical fictions is the idea that Canada was a “promised land” where all citizens were “equal under the law.” This pervasive myth is often propagated in Canadian museums and media as a contrast to American racism and slavery. Charmaine Nelson and Nina Reid-Maroney, among numerous others, directly combat visions of Canada as a benevolent or tolerant space for Black people in their scholarship. Others, such as Amani Whitfield and Afua Cooper, have challenged the idea that Canada was the “freedom place” by publishing on our nation’s long history of Black slavery.
These were key ideas that I explored with my students in the fall semester of 2022 in Western University’s first Black Canadian history course (although this subject was sometimes included on the syllabi for other survey courses and at our affiliate colleges, this was the first time a semester-long course was offered at main campus). Our class owes a huge debt to a series of guest speakers who spoke to us on their areas of expertise.
On the theme of the Underground Railroad, Dr. Deirdre McCorkindale helped us understand the damage that focusing solely on the intrigue and excitement of UGRR histories does by promoting myths of white saviourism and of Canada as a fair and equal society. McCorkindale urged our class to stretch this history to include the decades that followed—and thereby the racism, segregation, and exclusion that Black Canadians faced. Despite these challenges, many of these communities grew and built schools, churches, and support networks.
As was a major point in our class discussion on the subject, we must avoid couching these communities within the era of the Underground Railroad when relaying their histories. Doing so historicizes them as a thing of the past that we as a society have outgrown, meanwhile modern colourblind racism is a continuity of the 19th century’s discriminatory practices.
These myths and problems, pervasive within public commemoration of Underground Railroad settlements, were the subject of many student term papers. Over the next several weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m pleased to introduce a series of these essays on ActiveHistory.ca addressing these myths as presented at heritage sites in Southwestern Ontario by my former students.
In the first essay, Amorette Ngan takes us to Salem Chapel in St. Catharines, ON. The church was designated a national historic site in part for its linkages to the infamous Black conductor Harriet Tubman. Ngan suggests that, while focus on Tubman’s connections to the community helped raise awareness about St. Catharine’s Black history, this emphasis has come to so predominate the conversation that it actually distracts from the Black community’s longer and more complex history.
Next Tuesday, in Miranda Sagle’s essay, we look at the evolving historiography and commemoration of the Wilberforce Colony in present-day Lucan, ON (just north of London). Sagle points out that most recent scholarship rejects previous views of the community as a “failure” that ignored Black settlers’ own motives or goals. She also points to the ways this community, established in the 1820s, is mistakenly lumped in with Underground Railroad settlements in much commemoration, despite being established by free Black migrants.
Raghd Abou Jarboua’s essay compliments Sagle’s findings by unpacking the ways the “white saviour” myth affects historical memory of Elgin Settlement in present-day Buxton, ON (south of Chatham). Abou Jarboua argues that Elgin’s founder, Rev. William King, imposed strict rules on Black settlers to ensure his settlement would achieve the metrics of success white society imposed on Black communities in the 1800s. Abou Jarboua explores how interpretations of King’s actions differ between the national historic site and in scholarship.
Samuel Pratt contemplates marketing techniques employed at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum in Amherstburg, ON. According to Pratt, the museum’s rebranding from the “North American Black Historical Museum” misrepresents the actual histories visitors encounter on site by leaning into the freedom narrative in its name, marketing, and social media presence.
Juliana Springer’s final contribution to this series explores the ways in which Griffin House (Ancaster, ON) has been pressured to promote the “promised land” myth by local stakeholders. Springer finds that, from the museum’s opening, Griffin House staff have been forced to balance their commitment to historical accuracy with local unwillingness to have histories that challenge this myth on public display.
In sum, these contributions comment upon the ways these heritage sites’ commemorations have, are in the process of, or could align themselves more closely with current historical scholarship and the reasons some have been slow to make this transition.
Erin Isaac is a PhD Candidate at Western University in London, ON. Erin’s irregular YouTube series, Historia Nostra, investigates the ways history is taught at heritage sites and museums across North America. Learn more at historianostra.ca.