There was a large crowd taking part in the flag-raising launch to Black History Month on Feb. 1, yet recent events show more education is needed for a deeper understanding of Black history, according to local leaders.
While many in the Black community applauded the quick response by owners of Chatham-Kent’s new baseball team to drop the proposed Blackbirds name, others in the broader community were less supportive. There were many negative social media comments about the name change.
Steven Cook, curator of the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History in Dresden, said he was not surprised.
“I was disappointed in how… very little support there was to hear the opinion of the community as to why this is the wrong choice,” he said.
When curators, historians and educators talk about Black history, “We like to talk about it on context,” Cook said.
He recounted how the Underground Railway picked up steam when the 1850 Black Fugitive Slave Law passed, calling for the return of freed slaves to the southern United States.
Many former slaves found freedom in Chatham-Kent in the Dawn and Elgin settlements that formed in Dresden and Buxton. Chatham became a destination for Underground Railway freedom seekers who came and built schools, churches and industries while forming communities they called home.
“I want to say that we’ve come a long way since, but we still have a long way yet to go,” Cook said.
The curator said many people might wonder why he would make that claim.
“I’ll be real with you today,” Cook said while recalling the public response to the name change at the Dresden museum.
That switch – from the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic site, named after a fictional character, to the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History, named after a real person who escaped slavery and founded the Dawn Settlement – was not well received by some residents, he said.
“The response from the community was not very welcoming. … I’ll be honest with you, they did not like the change, ”he said.
Mayor Darrin Canniff said the “vast majority of the people who live in Chatham-Kent are very supportive and very much on the good side of things” when it comes to Black history.
He said it’s critical to educate the few who are not on that side.
The mayor said the aim of Black History Month, locally, is to “celebrate our history, celebrate the future (and) make people aware – education is powerful.”
He said the municipality wants everyone to know the significant role Black history has played within Chatham-Kent.
“I want people to get out and celebrate that history and learn about that history, get out to the amazing places and the events we have planned for the next month .:
Cook credited Canniff for “hitting the nail on the head” when he spoke about the importance of education.
When the decision was made to rename the Dresden site to honor Josiah Henson, it soon became apparent more education was needed, said Cook.
“People just did not understand the harm and the racial undertones in the name Uncle Tom,” he said.
He said similar concerns were raised by the recent Blackbird baseball team name.
“Unless people are made aware of it, they do not know how it’s perceived within different communities and within the Black community,” Cook said. “It really was words that hurt us and harmed us and we wanted to make sure that change was brought about.”
He encouraged people to visit the Josiah Henson and Buxton National Historic Museum sites, as well as the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum.
Cook said he confident there is nowhere else in Canada that boasts the same representation of Black history as Chatham-Kent.
“Historically, we’ve had so many firsts that came right out of here in Chatham-Kent, so let’s be proud of them and let’s shine a light on it and let the world know what have to offer.”
He said those involved with Black history also continue to learn.
“A lot of this history has not been taught or told. It has been kept hidden, ”Cook said. “The more we dig and the more we research, the more we’re finding out there’s so much more to be proud of and we’re just digging deeper and deeper the further we go.”