Part 1 of a 4 part Black History Month series titled: The Howe Report.
Coming to Terms with Racism
Black History Month is an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on our community’s history. Since I’ve been writing or co-writing our annual Black History Month blog series, I have witnessed significant growth in the awareness and understanding of the role our community played in the days of the Underground Railroad.
But the Underground Railroad isn’t the end of the story. I love a harrowing and adventurous story as much as the next person, but Black History doesn’t begin and end with the Underground Railroad.
For this year’s Black History Month blog series, we’ll be unpacking the Howe Report.
In 1863, the United States Congress commissioned Samuel G. Howe to study and report on the condition of refugee slaves in Canada West (Ontario). His report, “The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West Report to the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission” was published in 1864 and details the results of inquiries and interviews and observations. Howe interviewed many local Black and White people including Dr. Theophilus Mack (St. Catharines’ first doctor) and Eleazer Stephenson (owner of salt-spring tourist hotel the Stephenson House). The full interviews weren’t published by Howe, but instead mostly used as evidence in his report. Howe’s conclusions differ somewhat from those he interviewed.
Black history is a part of Canadian history and that history includes racism.
It’s difficult to come to terms with, I know. I love sharing the exciting story of Harriet Tubman and others who found freedom and refuge in St. Catharines. I have difficulty coming to terms with the idea that even though Freedom Seekers were welcome and supported in the community, they (and other minority or immigrant groups) were treated poorly, were openly disrespected, and experienced racism.
While the content of the interviews would be considered inappropriate and racist by today’s standards, it’s not good enough to plainly write-off their opinions as ‘of the time’. Yes, these were opinions held by prominent (doctors, members of government, business owners) and not-so-prominent members of the community living in a certain context at a particular period of time, this doesn’t serve as an excuse to dismiss these sentiments as we might have in the past. Sweeping these issues under the rug doesn’t eliminate racism from our society – it only allows it to hide within systems and institutions, invisibly yet significantly impacting the lives of those in our community.
While the material I’ll share throughout the series is difficult and not OK, it’s really important that we acknowledge it so that we can do something about it.
The Howe Report
Of the interviews Howe conducted, the majority have an underlying racist sentiment about either Black people or Freedom Seekers, or another minority group altogether.
It is interesting to note that Howe does not always give veracity to the opinions of those he interviewed. For example, in response to the idea that Freedom Seekers were lazy, Howe wrote:
“No sensible people in Canada charge the refugees with slothfulness. The only charge worth notice is that they “shirk hard work.” This charge is made thoughtlessly by most people…”S.G. Howe. The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West. Report to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission (Boston: Wright & Potter, Printers, 1864), 55.
This kind of reaction from Howe is common throughout his report. I get the sense from reading the interview material and from Howe’s published report, that perhaps he had to read between the lines to decipher opinion from truth.
Here are a couple of examples of commentary from interviewees:
“The coloured people here get on very poorly. They steal our sheep, our chickens, and everything else. They are a curse to any country. I wish they were all back South, for my part. They are a lazy set, especially the young men. We have to support them while they live, and bury them when they die.”Town Clerk, C.P. Camp as interviewed by S.G. Howe, 1863.
Yet, another from a Freedom Seeker named J.W. Lindsay who confirms the prejudice those in the Black community faced:
“I find the prejudice here the same as in the States. I don’t find any difference at all. In fact, as for prejudice goes, the slaveholders have not so much absolute prejudice, as the people here-not half. In this country, they will treat us with having been in Virginia, and about having been in slavery. They take hold of it as a handle to throw their stigmas upon us.”J.W. Lindsay, as interviewed by S.G. Howe, 1863.
Other interview subjects confirm their own experience, or in other ways confirm the engrained attitudes that a lot of people subscribed to – Black and White alike. We’ll explore the interviews deeper later in the series.
Indeed, Howe confirmed in his concluding findings the experiences of the Freedom Seekers in St. Catharines:
“7th. That prejudice against them among the whites (including the English) is engendered by the same circumstances, and manifested with the same intensity, as in the United States.”S.G. Howe. The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West. Report to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission (Boston: Wright & Potter, Printers, 1864), 102.
What was your reaction reading these statements?
Dealing with Period Racism
My reaction was: why were these people so readily willing to share their obvious prejudices? Did they not realize that their words were hurtful? Did they have any awareness of what they were implying?
The words race and racism, as we define them today, had a somewhat different nuance to them in the 19th Century. This is not to imply that they were not as hurtful and inappropriate then as they are today. Many 19th Century Canadians held beliefs that were highly racialized – in that they believed physical characteristics determined the abilities and behaviours of a particular group of people. If they believed that a person’s behaviour was determined by stable inherited characteristics, and that different groups are comparative to one another as superior or inferior, then it is no surprise that the results of Howe’s report detailed these widely held beliefs.
Some of the testimony was so surprising that my 21st century brain couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that historical personalities I’m familiar with held these views so openly.
When I dug into the history of racism, it was pretty clear that this particular type of contradictory opinion (welcoming Black Freedom Seekers as refugees while concurrently holding racialized views against the same group of people) comes from race being a social construct supporting racist scientific doctrine. These views helped people justify the class system in Canada, the same way it helped to justify slavery in the United States.
Through this construct, everyone had their place – as superior or inferior – and the easiest way to ascribe someone’s place in the system was through race. This organization provided social stability, especially for those who considered themselves superior. The social construct was broad, however, because it wasn’t restricted to skin-colour. The interviews Howe conducted also feature racialized comments about Irish immigrants to St. Catharines – especially those, or those descended from, folks who escaped famine in the 1840s by moving to North America. Black interviewees held particularly racist views about Irish people, and the white Canadian or English often compared the abilities of Blacks and Irish, based on prejudicial or stereotypical views.
Most interviews feature some comment about how Black Freedom Seekers were unable to cope or were uncomfortable with the climate in St. Catharines. The idea was that their skin colour determined their ‘heartiness’ for winter weather. We know today that’s ridiculous: anyone who spends their lives in warmer climates and then suddenly visits or moves to a colder one will take time to acclimatize. It just so happens that the people arriving from a warmer climate to a colder one in the 1850s and 1860s were Black. Indeed, the Black interviewees confirmed their discomfort in the colder months, but not because of their own skin colour – just because their personal preference was for warm weather.
Further to this previous example, most interviews also feature comment regarding the cleanliness and proclivity to drunkenness in the Irish community. White interviewees openly admitted to discriminating against one group over the other based on these beliefs. Eleazer Stephenson claimed he only hired Black workers because they were far less likely to get into trouble than the Irish:
“I don’t think there is as much crime among the coloured people as among the Irish – nothing like it…The coloured people are a much neater class of people, as a general thing, than the Irish.”Eleazer Stephenson, as interviewed by S.G. Howe, 1863.
Folks like Eleazer Stephenson and C.P. Camp may not have considered their remarks as racist at the time but judging by today’s standards they are not acceptable. As I mentioned at the top of this post, it’s now our work to acknowledge the existence of this kind of sentiment in our community so that we have the full picture and can actually do something about it.
Hiding away difficult histories can have tremendous and damaging impacts in our community.
Our next post in The Howe Report Black History Month series will dig deeper into the interviews recorded by Howe so we can get a fuller picture of what St. Catharines was like during the 1860s.
With Special Thanks to Donna Ford for transcribing the Howe Commission Testimony. The transcriptions are available upon request at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.
Adrian Petry is a public historian and Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.
Additional Source Material
Cannon, Margaret. Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada. Toronto: Random House, 1995.
McKague, Ormond Knight. Racism in Canada. Saskatoon: Fifth House Publishers, 1991.
Satzewich, Vic. Racism in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2011.