Doomed to Repeat it…
Our Black History Month blog series this year has focused on using our past to inspire us to compassionate action. One important part of that process is identifying and owning all parts of our history: the difficult or uncomfortable parts, as well as the good parts. Not only might we be doomed to repeat history if we don’t know it, but we will certainly not be able to redirect history with our compassionate actions if we do not recognize the full story.
In our final blog post for our Black History Month series, we’re going to examine a few historical cases, from two completely separate times, to share a fuller picture of our history. We hope these stories will help you to reconcile the difficult histories with the histories we are proud of.
John Graves Simcoe and the Emancipation Act of 1793.
Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe is known for the Act Against Slavery, which was passed on July 9, 1793. It aimed at ending the sale of slaves by Upper Canadians to Americans. The act also liberated slaves entering Upper Canada from the US, but did not free existing adult slaves already in residence.
His story is often shared as a hero’s tale. Simcoe heard the story of Chole Cooley, a young, Canadian-born slave sold from Niagara-on-the-Lake to an American across the Niagara River. Not wanting to leave her family, Chloe reportedly kicked and screamed during the trade, and two witnesses, Peter Martin and William Grisley, reported the incident to Simcoe. Simcoe then used the incident as the catalyst to move anti-slavery legislation forward.
While the Act made significant strides as the first piece of anti-slavery legislation passed anywhere in the British Empire, the Act still left those already in residence enslaved. The compromise, to limit, but not abolish slavery, was made in the face of resistance from Canadian slave owners.
And while the Act set the stage for the beginnings of the Underground Railroad, it’s important for us to acknowledge when we share this story that the Canadian tradition of progress comes in slow steps, not in wide swaths all at once. The consequence of that tradition is that today, there are still steps to be taken, and that compassionate action calls us to recognize that there is still work to be done.
In addition to the 1793 Act Against Slavery, the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery ended slavery across the British Empire but it did not legislate against discrimination.
James Grant and the First World War
When the First World War broke out in 1914, young Black Canadians lined up along with other eager young men to “do their bit” for their country.
Many of these men were faced with discrimination and were turned away at the recruiting offices. Faced with pressure to address this issue, Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes issued orders that no person was to be discriminated against based on their race if they chose to join the Canadian Army. In practice, however, it was up to the local regimental Commanding Officer to decide whether to admit coloured troops into their ranks. Very few chose to open up their unit to black soldiers.
It is estimated that 2000 black men succeeded in joining regular units including James Grant, a resident of St. Catharines, who enlisted with the 49th Battery. He was a well-respected and liked member of the unit notable for his deep bass singing voice. On November 4th, 1917, his actions near Zonniebeke, Belgium won him the Military Medal- the first African-Canadian to win this distinction in the war.
In 1916, No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Nova Scotia as the first and only segregated military unit in Canadian history. Its members sailed for Europe in March 1917 and served with the Canadian Forestry Corps throughout the war, performing construction duties such as maintaining trenches and cutting lumber for the repair of roads and railroads. Ernest Bell, a local resident joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion rather than the locally recruited units.
Charles Summers and the Fair Accommodations Practices Act, 1959
In another step towards progress, a number of local and provincial organizations and individuals rallied around the Summers Family in 1959.
Charles Summers, his wife Ada, and their children lived on Ontario Street in St. Catharines. In September of 1959, they were asked to leave the apartment they rented. The landlady asked them to leave because of their race. Apparently, she had received a number of anonymous letters from other Ontario Street residents complaining that they did not want coloured people living there. Other letters were sent to Jack Woods, owner of the Coffizon, a restaurant located on Ontario Street near the McKinnon Motors plant. He lived in the same building as the Summers family and his customers threatened to stop spending money in his restaurant unless he put pressure on his landlady to evict the Summers family.
Historians and professors Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage cover this story well in their book “Union Power”:
“Charles Summers, a native of St. Catharines, refused to leave. When his landlady first approached him, he asked her for a written notice. Having obtained the documentation, he contacted the St. Catharines Standard to publicize this racist incident. “I felt that if I didn’t take a stand now,” he told the paper, “my children and in turn their children would have to face the same discrimination during their lives. I want this kind of thing to stop now.”* Summers’ stand encouraged African Canadians and other local residents to speak out against discrimination. Russell Thompson, a member of the Meliorist Club, an African Canadian service club [in St. Catharines], told reporters that up to 80 percent of young African Canadians in the area were unable to find work, that few barber shops in St. Catharines would serve African Canadians, and that there had been earlier attempts to prevent them from settling in certain parts of the city.” (Union Power, pg 75)**
When delegations presented petitions for action to be taken by City Council, Councillors voted down a proposed by-law protecting tenants from discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or national origin. The proposed by-law was defeated because it was believed the issue should be taken on by the Province (which passed anti-discrimination legislation in 1961) but Councillors, including the mayor, refused to acknowledge the realities of racism in Canada, stating that the letters to the landlady and to Jack Woods were the work of marginalized individuals.
*Read more about the Summers legacy in this article about his wife Ada, and son Ron.
**Read more about the case in Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara by Brock University professors and historians Larry Savage and Carmela Patrias.
The Summers case is a great example of how progress comes in small steps. It’s also a great example of how a community and its leaders can forget the past, that if remembered, might have helped them to understand the perspective of marginalized peoples. And further still, the community’s inability – or refusal – to acknowledge the reality of racism in the community actually limited their ability to take action. Even with a city by-law that might have ceased discrimination in rental practices, one Councillor admitted that they would not and could not legislate against prejudice.
How to Reconcile the Good and Bad Parts of Our History
How can we reconcile the good parts of our history with the difficult parts of our history?
Stories like the establishment of the Refugee Slaves Friends Society here in St. Catharines, or the popular Emancipation Day Picnic, held at Lakeside Park from the 1920s to the 1950s to celebrate the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery, are enjoyable to share and to consume because they can help us to feel better about ourselves and our past while living in troubling times. Unfortunately, history is messy. We love organization and labels as much as you do, but history is complex and accurately telling stories includes acknowledging the bad parts too. Recognizing messy histories can actually help to clean up and heal the impacts that history has on our community today. Reconciling the good with the bad parts of our history can help us to move forward.
What is compassionate action anyway? I look to the words that Charles Summers gave regarding his fight for rights: “I felt that if I didn’t take a stand now,” he told the St. Catharines Standard, “my children and in turn their children would have to face the same discrimination during their lives. I want this kind of thing to stop now.” He had an important stake in the case – his life and the lives of his family members. But the idea that it’s up to us to stand up – not leaving it to someone else – against the repetition of the bad parts of our history is selfless, and exactly the kind of compassionate action we’ve been talking about over the last month.
Your actions might not manifest themselves in historic laws or social movements. Even individuals taking small actions – like a donation or volunteering with organizations that help marginalized people, or writing to those in positions of power to draw their attention to repetitious historical complexities – can be enough to help change our history for the better.
Adrian Petry is a public historian and Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.
To find out more about Black History in St. Catharines, please visit the St. Catharines Museum.
Visit Compassionate STC to find out more about the Compassionate City projected initiated by Mayor Walter Sendzik.