Nov. 7, 2012 – Crossing the Detroit River…but which way?

This week I found a pretty interesting aspect of Black history in Canada which I will describe below.  But before I get to that, I will mention that I organized my virtual exhibit a bit this past week, as planned.  It still needs work but I have made progress.  Omeka suggests using standardized metadata values and I believe this is a good idea.  My background in Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence makes me wary of the problems of poor data quality.  Already, as I enter information for one exhibit item I have a hard time remembering what sorts of data values I used on other items, and I only have about 3 items!  So I created an Excel Spreadsheet with drop down lists of the data values that I intend to use for the different metadata fields in the exhibit. I can cut and paste valid values from the spreadsheet into the exhibit to keep the data consistent.  It’s not an ideal solution, but it helps.

I went on reading more of Fred Landon’s book, Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918-1967, and was despairing a bit that he retained such a pro-Canada view of slavery throughout his life as a writer of history.  Even as late as 1967, he neglected to mention some of the negative aspects of Canada’s history of slavery (although the 1967 article was only partly about Canada.)

But then I read the 1919 article by Justice William Renwick Riddell, entitled “The Slave in Upper Canada.”  Perhaps his legal background led him to seek both sides of each story.  He begins the article by clearly asserting that Canada not only had slavery when it was New France, but that it continued to have slavery after the British took over, and sustained slavery until 1833.

We Canadians have a fond image of our country as a place where fugitive slaves took refuge after escaping from the U.S.  In particular, we think of slaves, as well as other Black refugees, coming across the Detroit River into Amherstburg, Ontario where they could find the hope of a better future.  But Justice Riddell points to an earlier period and makes quite a startling observation.  In the early 19th century, Blacks indeed escaped across the Detroit River, but they were escaping from Canada into the U.S.!  In 1787, the July 13 Ordinance of Congress in the U.S. disallowed slavery in any new state northwest of the Ohio River.  And in 1805, when Michigan was incorporated as a state, this ordinance came into full effect, and Detroit became a truly free destination for many escaping Canadian slaves.  This flight of slaves was so significant that in 1806 a Black militia was established in Detroit made up entirely of escaped Canadian slaves. (Riddell, p. 386)

From a historiographical standpoint, this tells me that at least some Canadian historians, as early as 1919, such as Riddell, were considering the Canadian Black experience from a different standpoint.  My observation up to this point had been that Canadian historians tended to view this history through rose-tinted glasses, and that the only balanced discussion came from observations made by people outside of Canada.  For example, Benjamin Drew’s 1856 book of slave narratives was more balanced, but Drew was American.  However, my sample size of readings is small so far, and I haven’t been able to settle yet on a clear idea.

So this coming week I will continue to review the literature.  I want to look at some other Canadian historians writing in the 20th century, as well as find some from the 19th century.  And I will also have a look for a picture of the 1806 Detroit Black militia of escaped Canadian slaves for my virtual exhibit.

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Filed under 19th Century, Black history, Canadian, Uncategorized

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