By Samuel Pratt
Betty and Melvin Simpson of Amherstburg, ON opened a small history museum in 1975. They “had a dream to illuminate the history of Black people in a dignified manner,” wanting to promote their town’s extensive involvement in the history of Black Canadians. Known as the North American Black Historical Museum, the museum was built in the former Nazery African Methodist Episcopal Church. Though established in 1848, the congregation had dwindled by the late twentieth century, making their vision possible.
Named after Bishop Willis Nazery, a prominent Bishop and the first leader of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the church had historically provided a safe haven for those seeking food, shelter, and clothing, and as a centre for education and community for those who remained residents of Amherstburg.
Despite this legacy, before the museum opened, Black history had often been forgotten or ignored, not just in Amherstburg, but in Canada as a whole. The Simpsons created a space that informed the public about Black history in Canada through educational exhibits and tours. After Melvin’s death in 1982, Betty continued to be involved with the museum until she died in 2014.
While the museum continues to honour their legacy (with plaques, signage, and images of the couple appearing within the museum), some changes have taken place since Betty died. These changes have departed from the Simpsons’ original vision. Most notably, the museum rebranded from the “North American Black Historical Museum” to the “Amherstburg Freedom Museum.”
This name change, which took place in 2015, carries different connotations than the Simpsons’ much broader name by focusing explicitly on Amherstburg’s connections to the Underground Railroad rather than the community’s wider role in Black history. Canada sees its role in the Underground Railroad as “the promised land” wherein generous White Canadians leant aid to Black refugees escaping from the racist and discriminatory United States. By using the term “freedom” in its new name, this rebranding contributes to a common impulse to represent Canada as a “bastion of freedom” for Freedom Seekers. This name change, and associated marketing, somewhat ironically, promotes a vision of Black Canadian history that is directly resisted by the museum exhibits found onsite.
Unfortunately, the museum’s name suggests Canada and Amherstburg were places where, once inside their borders, Black people were treated with respect and equality. This impression is reinforced by language on the museum’s website such as “Many people fleeing slavery and oppressed Blacks first felt true freedom within her walls” and “After crossing the Detroit River to Amherstburg, which is one of the narrowest Detroit River points of entry, these individuals became people in a nation, where they were recognized and respected, some perhaps for the first time, as human beings.” These words imply that the community of Amherstburg had a space in which Black people felt completely free; free from slavery and oppression..
Leaning into the Freedom Narrative is problematic, even if only through a marketing lens because it misdirects people and confirms their biases. While promoting the museum is integral to the museum’s survival, such marketing threatens the initial intention of the museum as a place to teach Black history in a dignified manner. The Freedom Narrative risks glossing over the experiences of the Black community in Canada in order to create a favourable view of Canada as a place of freedom and equality. This style of marketing sets visitors up for a classic Canadian history experience, one where we learn about the helpful, kind and generous Canadian aiding the Freedom Seeker escaping from an evil United States.
All of this marketing contrasts with the nuanced interpretation of the museum’s exhibits, much of their programming, and even the content they post on social media. As a visitor of the museum I was surprised and excited to see a non-traditional yet more accurate history being shown. The museum actively rebuffed the Freedom Narrative through its guided tours and exhibits.
Once in the museum, I went on guided tours of the site where tour guides not only mention the church’s lengthy history as a terminal in the Underground Railroad but also what really happened after people arrived in Canada. Tour guides are quick to mention that once Black refugees reached Canada, there was still mass discrimination and segregation, especially in the areas of religion and education, acknowledging that the church itself served as a segregated school for many years. The exhibits display pictures of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a segregated construction battalion created in the First World War, and a list of the names of those who signed up to fight in the Battalion from the Amherstburg and Windsor area. The museum also displays exhibits that highlight and explain the province’s segregated school system and how that affected the Black population in the town of Amherstburg.
After reflecting on these exhibits, I began to wonder about changing the museum’s name once again to better honour the Simpsons’ original vision and the building’s longstanding ties to Amherstburg’s Black community. Though I know it wouldn’t solve the national trend of misrepresentation, I feel that the Amherstburg Freedom Museum does such a good job promoting Black history within its walls that its marketing should reflect the excellent work that they do. Sometimes seemingly simple changes can have a huge effect.
The Nazery African Methodist Episcopal Church is a wonderful spot to stop and learn about the Black community in Amherstburg. It is an authentic and enriching experience for those interested in the history of Black Canadians and should be advertised as such. It could be argued to keep the museum remaining as it is and lose the name and the deception implied by it. Overall, this is not a museum to be missed.
Samuel Pratt, an undergraduate student at Western University, is interested in Classics, History, Political Science, and Creative Writing.
Amherstburg Bicentennial Book Committee, Amherstburg 1796 – 1996 The New Town on the Garrison Grounds (Amherstburg: Brown & Associates, 1996)
Amherstburg Freedom Museum, “Home,” amherstburgfreedom.org, 11 November 2022. https://amherstburgfreedom.org/
Amherstburg Freedom Museum, 2022 Emancipation Celebration (Amherstburg: Amherstburg Freedom Museum, 29 July 2022)
Parks Canada, “Nazery African Methodist Episcopal Church National Historyic Site of Canada,” historicplaces.ca, 25 October 2006.
Windsor Public Library, “Simpson, Melvin ‘Mac’ Thomas And Betty Ruth Beatrice (Nee Johnson),” windsorpubliclibrary.com, 11 November 2022.