Photo: Courtesy of Sylvia Kyle
My daughter, Aimée* joined our family two years ago at age 15. During that time, I’ve showered her with love and attention, and the bond between us is heartfelt. But in spite of the adoption-marketing cliché “All you need is love,” I knew this Canadian-born girl of African heritage needed more than that from me—a white, Scottish-born Canadian—to grow up to be a proud and confident Black woman.
We discuss race, culture and social justice regularly, but we also acknowledge with frustration—and, at the worst of times, tears—that there’s a gap between how we experience the world that no amount of talking can fully bridge.
Around a quarter of the kids at Aimée’s Toronto school are Black, however, there is only one Black teacher. The lack of representation on staff shows in the dearth of Black authors, icons and race-related material covered in classes. Aimée has a passion for history and was craving a deeper understanding of events and historical figures that would resonate for her as a young Black woman.
When this issue came up, my first impulse was to call the school administration. (But that’s another story for another time.) My second impulse: road trip!
We live about four hours from the of Essex county and the municipality of Chatham-Kent, which border the US on the southernmost tip of Ontario, along the Detroit River. These were once key regions on the Underground Railroad. So, one weekend, not long after that chat, we hit the 401.
With the assistance of Chatham-Kent Tourism and Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island, I crafted an itinerary that encompassed everything from slavery—both in Canada and the US—to African-influenced architecture to Canada’s not-so-proud history of segregated schools. Aimée had taken Black culture and history trips to Nova Scotia and Jamaica in the past, and she was excited to learn more so close to home.
“You can almost feel the sadness down here, when you think of people having to hide,” says Lana Talbot, our guide and a member of the congregation at Sandwich First Baptist Church, the first stop on our journey. This is one of the oldest active Black churches in Canada, built by formerly enslaved people in 1851. Talbot brings us down into the crawlspace, under the floorboards, where terrified families used to crouch for hours, hidden from the bounty hunters who came looking for them to haul back across the border into enslavement after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in the US.
The church was built by hand with bricks made from clay pulled from the Detroit River. Many of the volunteers had to walk several hours there and back from neighbouring towns to participate in the build. This came to be a place that symbolized survival, collaboration, faith and hope for the future. You didn’t just learn Black history in this place of worship and safe haven, you felt it.
As Talbot shows us the artwork in the church’s gathering space—some of it her own—she chats with Aimée about how disappointing it is when artists lighten the skin tones of Black subjects. My daughter nods in agreement—one of her pet peeves is advertising campaigns that show Black women with only the lightest complexions.
While we tour and talk, Talbot begins blending the historical with the personal, sharing how she participated in the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech; how she took her granddaughter to the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009; and how as a schoolgirl she walked out of her grade four class when her teacher wanted her to read aloud from Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a book that made her classmates laugh each time the n-word came up in its pages. She’s a force. Aimée asks her, “If slaves were free here, why did kids of different colours go to segregated schools?”
“Freedom and equality were not a package deal in Canada,” says Talbot.
Often on our trip I feel sadness and shame over the actions of my British ancestors. Glasgow, the Scottish city where I studied, was built on slavery, mainly profits from cotton, sugar, rum and spice production in Jamaica. When I was Aimée’s age and still living there, we were taught that Glasgow was a great 19th-century merchant city, but our teachers failed to mention how that came to be. Recently, my daughter took a DNA test and discovered that three percent of her genetic makeup is British. Rather than feel a positive connection through that little bit of shared DNA, we acknowledged the likelihood that the violations of an enslaver or trader were involved.
As we explore the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, I feel some solace in knowing that Aimée will learn about an early ally at this site, Rev. William King, an Irish immigrant who became a vocal opponent of the slave trade after his time at the University of Glasgow, my alma mater. In 1848, King acquired 9,000 acres of land in southwestern Ontario with the assistance of the Church and Canadian Abolitionists (known as the Elgin Association) and created the Elgin settlement, a haven for fugitives running from slavery and free Blacks. He had inherited 15 people who had been enslaved through a variety of circumstances (he married into a slaveholding family, he was willed some and some came with a farm he purchased) and brought them north with him to Canada to begin their free lives and farm their own plots of land on the settlement.
Museum curator Shannon Prince explains that King had to put rules and regulations in place because many of the white settlers claimed the Blacks were inferior. King firmly believed that if Blacks were provided with the same opportunities as whites, they too could become self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Some of these rules were that the land could only be purchased by Blacks (they were charged $2.50 per acre and had 10 years to pay it off) and that all land must be purchased, not rented, or sharecropped until it was completely paid for. He also instated a rule that for a period of 10 years after the down payment, land could only be resold to Blacks, even if it was completely paid for. King didn’t want Blacks to live in the types of shacks common in the slave quarters of the South, so he established minimum housing standards: each house was to be at least 24 feet by 18 feet with at least four rooms; it was to be set back 33 feet from the road and must have a picket fence, a flower garden, a vegetable garden and a porch.
Prince stands at the teacher’s ledger in the one-room school that she attended as a little girl and laughs at our bewildered expressions as we perch on tiny seats at antique desks and try to do authentic grade four dictées and mental math problems. She explains that this school, which King founded in 1861, was one of the only integrated schools in North America to give Black children a classical education that encouraged independent thinking, debate and a love of learning. The original students—the children of formerly enslaved people who had been deprived of an education and free Blacks who had settled in the area—epitomized Black excellence. On graduating from school, many went on to higher education, then to careers as doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians and preachers. The reputation of the superior education here spread, and soon every local parent was knocking at the door. By the end of 1850, the whites-only schools in the area had to close for lack of attendance, and segregated schooling ended in the area near Windsor (note: there were still segregated schools in Chatham), although it persisted elsewhere in rural Ontario up until a century later.
I notice that Prince has taken a shine to my daughter. I find the two in the entranceway together, deep in conversation. “That’s me there… that’s my aunt… that’s my grandfather…” says Prince, pointing at class photos and identifying all her relatives across the generations who attended the school. Aimée has changed school several times in her life—each time she was bounced to a new home—and thinks it’s very cool to see this long line of family members taking their turns at the same small desks.
Before we leave, Prince piles Aimée’s arms full of books about Black history from the gift store, along with a hoodie that says “Straight Outta Buxton.” Then she gives her a long hug. Were it not for all those books, I swear Aimée would have floated back to our car.
Our last stop is the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum, a tiny (mostly) volunteer-run museum where we learn about Chatham, originally named the Forks. The influential town came to be known as a place where Black-owned businesses flourished and the schools turned out prominent figures in sports, literature, medicine and the arts, from baseball pitcher Fergie Jenkins (Canada’s first Hall of Famer) to Anderson Abbott (the physician who attended to a dying President Abraham Lincoln).
Aimée fills a photo card with snaps of exhibits on courageous Black war veterans, big-league hockey and baseball players, nurses and doctors. She listens, rapt, as our guide, 75-year-old Dorothy Wallace (née Wright), brings these local heroes to life with her own anecdotes. One of six siblings, Wallace has lived here her entire life and can point at a photograph of any prominent figure from the region and share a tidbit about what they—or their uncle or grandchild or second cousin once removed—were like in real life. She even has childhood memories of North Buxton-born artist and sculptor Artis Lane, who has done portraits of Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin and Rosa Parks.
Wallace takes us on a walking tour of the streets where she grew up, pointing to houses to show us who lived where and transporting us back in time through her vivid recollections of schoolyard scuffles and ice cream parlours. We sit with her on a bench in the BME Freedom Park, the bronze bust of Mary Ann Shadd Cary glowing in the afternoon sun, as Wallace tells us about this abolitionist and feminist, who was threatened with violence for articulating her political opinions at rallies. Shadd Cary broke taboos by becoming the first Black woman publisher in North America after other newspapers denied her column space. She was also one of the first Black women to get a law degree at Howard University, graduating at the age of 60. She’s the kind of role model I want for my daughter.
Throughout the day, I marvel as my kid asks question after question, then asks to take a selfie with Wallace on the steps of the First Baptist Church, where controversial American abolitionist John Brown once held clandestine meetings.
When our tour is done, Wallace places her hands on Aimée’s arms, looks her straight in the eyes and says, “You need to work hard at school. Don’t change yourself for any boy. And don’t let anything or anyone distract you from the work you’ll need to do to reach your goals, because as a Black woman you’ll have to work three times as hard to get what you want.” Aimée falls quiet, gazes right back and nods her head slowly.
On the drive home, I look over at my girl, asleep in the back seat, cozy in her Straight Outta Buxton sweater, and Wallace’s words come back to me. We went on this road trip for the history lessons—and they were rich, vivid, moving and everything we could have hoped for. But what we hadn’t anticipated were the life lessons slipped in along the way, courtesy of these three inspiring Black women. Talbot, Price and Wallace don’t have their own entries in the Canadian Encyclopaedia, but they do have a lifetime of experience navigating the world as strong Black women. And there’s something in the way a Black matriarch delivers wisdom bombs that really makes a girl listen.
*Some names have been changed
This article was originally published online in February 2019.