By Nina Reid-Maroney
An August, 1925 article in the Dawn of Tomorrow (“Advent of League in Chatham, Windsor, Dresden Enthusiastic”) details James Jenkins’ experience at a founding meeting for a new branch of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People (CLACP).
Jenkins, founding editor and publisher of the Dawn of Tomorrow and co-founder and Executive Secretary of the CLACP, arrived in the rural community of Chatham Township, on the outskirts of the town of Dresden, where he received “the surprise of his life” at the Union Baptist Church. He had “expected to be greeted with not more than 40-50 people” but was met with “an audience of nearly 700 enthusiastic citizens.” The Dresden/Chatham Township branch of the League was organized on the spot when the assembled crowd “voted to go into permanent organization.”
Jenkins’ account opens a window on the rich history of civil rights organizing in this small community, reaching back to Black abolitionist work in the 1840s and 1850s. Without the Dawn of Tomorrow and Jenkins’ published account of the “surprise of his life” at the Union Baptist Church, there would be no textual record of Dresden’s formal civil rights work during the 1920s, and few traces of the background that informed the community’s activism post-WWII, when the Dresden and Chatham Township founders of the National Unity Association drew on the deep currents of activist thought and experience to challenge the structures of racial segregation.
In one brief article, The Dawn provides evidence of what American civil rights historian and activist Vincent Harding called a “river of protest” flowing from Black resistance work of the 19th century to the 20th.
The space of one hundred years since Jenkins first published the Dawn of Tomorrow affords a long view of the deep and complex layers of historical evidence embedded in its pages.
In research for my 2013 biography of the Reverend Jennie Johnson (1868-1967), whose neighbouring church participated in the CLACP organizing of 1925, I relied on evidence from the Dawn of Tomorrow to understand the theological context of Chatham Township’s Black Baptist churches, finding traces of Jennie Johnson’s intellectual history in the Dawn of Tomorrow that appeared nowhere else in the record of her past.
Without the Dawn of Tomorrow, I would have missed the significance, too, of those long weeks in the summer of 1925, when a cross-burning in Dresden – on land that had once been part of the Black abolitionist Dawn settlement – signaled that the political power of the Klan across the border in Detroit had parallels in Canada. I would have missed the power of Black resistance in this small rural setting, the strength of community connection across geographic and temporal distance, and the evidence challenging historiographies of isolation that render 20th-century Black Canadian communities as separate and fading dots on a map.
The Dawn of Tomorrow is an irreplaceable archive.
Scholars of Black history in Canada, including Cheryl Thompson, Melissa Shaw, Ornella Nzindukiyimana, and Zahra McDoom have used the Dawn of Tomorrow as the foundation for writing new narratives that transcend old frameworks and open outward on vibrant fields of study.
In an effort to protect the sources that support this important and emerging scholarship, the Black Press in Canada (SSHRC Insight 2015-2021, Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, PI) began a community-based research project in 2015 to digitize the Dawn of Tomorrow in its entirety. Western University’s Archives and Research Collections Centre holds a bound volume of paper copies of the Dawn 1923-1925, which has been scanned and is available online through the Canadian Research Knowledge Network’s Canadiana.) Both Western and the London Public Library hold microfilm copies of a close-to complete run of the paper’s issues from 1923-1972. Two reels from Western’s sets of microfilm were listed as missing when the digitization project began, highlighting the need for a digitized version of the full run. In collaboration with the London Public Library and with members of the extended family of James Jenkins and Christina Groat Jenkins, student researchers at Huron University College, supported by Ryan Rabie, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Huron, built a website to host the Dawn of Tomorrow.
In addition to making the Dawn of Tomorrow publicly accessible, the project sought to position the Dawn of Tomorrow within a wider study of the Black Press, considering the context of its well-known 19th-century antecedents, the Voice of the Bondsman and the Provincial Freeman, and lesser-known Black newspapers published in Canada, including the True Royalist and Weekly Intelligencer, the Missionary Messenger, and “phantom” papers such as the Christian Defender and the British Lion, known only through references to them appearing in other print sources.
The Black Press in Canada thus situates the Dawn of Tomorrow within what Boulou Ebanda de B’béri has called a tradition of Black Canadian intellectual activism.
The Black Press in Canada project also supported undergraduate research, using the Dawn of Tomorrow to study civil rights movements from the astonishingly underused viewpoint of London’s local history.
Asked to undertake a close reading of a single article from any issue of the paper, students found that the Dawn of Tomorrow brought a sense of immediacy to topics they were accustomed to viewing from a distance, and that participation in a community-based project highlighted the wider relevance of their work.
Using the Dawn as the foundation for community-based research in the undergraduate history classroom has yielded extraordinary insight from both a research and teaching perspective. One student, for example, chose to analyse a small section of the Dawn’s social column that documented church events, dinner parties, out-of-town visitors, and family milestones. The assigned research reflection included the following passage:
“These snapshots sit between stories of racial injustice and activism from all over Canada and the United States that we think of as more important to the narrative of North American race relations. However, there is still a lot of power and importance in examining the everyday, even when they are not explicitly racialized anecdotes….We are often exposed to narratives of racism that leave little room for positive portrayals of Black life and identity and these tiny snapshots of the most average bits of daily life help to counter this monolithic idea.”
In offering this assessment, the student author invites us to see the Dawn of Tomorrow – at times global in its scope, at times deeply attentive to the contours of ordinary life – as a site of activism in its own time as well as in ours.
Nina Reid-Maroney is Professor of History at Huron University College, where she teaches American History and co-directs the Huron Community History Centre. She is the author of The Reverend Jennie Johnson and African Canadian History, 1868-1967 and co-editor of three books, including the forthcoming The Black Press: A Shadowed Canadian Tradition, co-edited with Boulou Ebanda de B’béri and Claudine Bonner.
This is the final post of three marking the 100th anniversary of the Dawn of Tomorrow.