BHM: The Howe Report Part 3

Part 3 of a 4-part Black History Month series titled: The Howe Report

Howe vs Drew

Samuel Gridley Howe arrived in St. Catharines approximately 9 years after Benjamin Drew had been through on his tour of Southern Ontario to conduct his interviews. Drew’s book The Refugee (1856) was a direct response to the to Nehemiah Adam’s pro-slavery A South-Side View of Slavery (1855). The Abolitionist Movement funded Drew’s work and the United Stats Congress commissioned Howe’s report.

Samuel Gridley Howe

Drew’s work was widely considered as promotional in nature with the goal of advancing the abolitionist movement in the Northern States and in the United Kingdom. In this light, the interviewees focus more on their experiences as slaves, than their time in St. Catharines. However, a few, such as J.W. Lindsey do comment on their experience living in Canada.

Benjamin Drew

A theme that emerges from comparing those snippets in Drew’s interviews with the testimonies from the Howe Commission is that there is quite a fine line and balancing act between the legal freedom of Black individuals in Canada, and the prejudices that are held against them. Too often, we conflate our understanding of the history of legal freedoms or rights under our constitution with living free from prejudice and bias. Interviews in both Drew and Howe confirm: legal freedom is not freedom from prejudice.

If you haven’t yet read the Black History Month blog series about The Refugee, please go back and read it – yes, homework!? – I know. Additionally, if you haven’t read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on the Howe Report, you should do that now, too.

To Recap

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 were mostly used as evidence in his report. Howe’s conclusions differ somewhat from those he interviewed.

Part 2 of this series revealed the fine line between racism and racialism, as well as legal freedom and freedom from prejudice. Many readers have shared the difficulty with which they read and processed the fact that St. Catharines was both a welcoming place for Freedom Seekers and a place where those same Freedom Seekers experienced prejudice. It was a place that believed in legal freedom but also a place that assigned traits to races.

1855 vs 1863 St. Catharines

St. Catharines in this period was truly the industrial hub of Niagara. Agriculture and shipbuilding – the largest employers – dominated the landscape. The Welland Canal brought innovation, wealth, technology, and tourists to St. Catharines. It was dirty – animals had the run of downtown, but it was also clean – Victorian tourists swept into the city at this time to take advantage of all the recreational opportunities available.

Of course, a modern city like St. Catharines also faced modern problems. A strike led by the Ship Carpenters and Caulkers Association nearly crippled ship production in 1861. The American Civil War put pressure on manufacturing and trade. In addition, the arrival of Freedom Seekers into the city meant unexpected and more rapid population and geographical growth, which put pressure on city services.

It was an exciting time but one of transition. So how did the Freedom Seekers fair over that period?

The Refugee

Drew’s book found that the Freedom Seekers who were in St. Catharines (whether having just arrived or had been in Canada for some time) were generally in better health and in spirits. Specifically, Drew’s interviews report that:

  • Freedom Seekers were able to pull themselves out of poverty (for the most part) because of employment opportunities and ‘start-up’ assistance from philanthropic groups like the Refugee Slaves’ Friend Society.
  • While most Freedom Seekers were religious, being a member of a church (either the BME or Zion) provided community, protection, support, and helped to establish reputation for Freedom Seekers that white folks would recognize. Being seen as ‘religious’ was akin to being seen as respectable and morally trustworthy.
  • Freedom Seekers faced prejudice no matter how hard they worked or how long they had been in St. Catharines.
  • Most Freedom Seekers looked to return to their homes in the United States if emancipation passed.

One of Drew’s interviews with the Rev. Alexander Hemsley is consistent with these findings:

“…When I reached St. Catharines I was enfeebled in health. I had come to a small inferior place’ there were pines growing all about here where you now see brick houses. I rented a house, and with another man took five acres of cleared land, and got along with it very well. We did not get enough from this to support us; but I got work at half a dollar or seventy-five cents a day and board myself. We were then making both ends meet. I then made up my mind that salt and potatoes in Canada were better than pound-cake and chickens in a state of suspense and anxiety in the United States…”

Drew, 59-60.
The Howe Report

It’s important to remember that Drew was interviewing and writing with a particular audience in mind, and in direct response to Nehemiah Adam’s pro-slavery A South-Side View of Slavery (1855), which was written to patronize the slaves and question their ability to care for themselves away from their masters.

Despite the potential for bias, Howe’s report confirmed Drew’s findings. His conclusions are similar to Drew’s, in that

“That with freedom and Equality before the law, they are, upon the whole, sober, industrious, and thrifty, and have proved themselves to be capable of self-guidance and self-support.”

“That they have not taken firm root in Canada, and that they earnestly desire to go to the southern region of the United States, partly from love of warmth, but more from love of home.”

“That, upon the whole, they promote the industrial and material interests of the country and are valuable citizens.”

Howe, 101-102

However, Howe’s report reveals more of a disagreement about the perception of how well the Freedom Seekers were doing. The testimonies often contradict themselves and each other. For example, the testimony of Mrs. Brown first says that the climate doesn’t bother her and most people, but that everyone would prefer to return to a warmer climate. In the same testimony she also says:

“..The colored people own their own houses and have owned them ever since I came here…”

Testimony of Mrs. Brown

Then she says:

“…The reason they do not get so much property as the Irish is because the Irish will live on nothing, like a dog. The colored people can’t live like the Irish, on potatoes and salt…”

Testimony of Mrs. Brown

Then Eleazer Stephenson also contradicts that statement by saying

“…the Irish get along better than the blacks…One great reason why the Negroes do not get on so well is because they are possessed, either by custom or nature, with pride, and spend money on dress, and adore themselves, and live very expensively, every way…”

Testimony of Eleazer Stephenson

He continues:

“…They have not that love for money which these low Irish have, who will work for anything, love on nothing, and hoard every cent. The Negroes are a much neater class of people, as a general thing, than the Irish…”

Testimony of Eleazer Stephenson

J.W. Lindsey

One interviewee appears in both Drew’s The Refugee and in the Howe Report: J.W. Lindsey. In 1855, Drew noted that Lindsey

“reached St. Catharines in an entirely destitute condition. He is now reputed to be worth from $8000 to $10000, acquired by industry and economy.”

Drew, 90.

In his interview with Drew, Lindsey said:

“…I have travelled in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. If a man says slavery is a good institution, he might as well say there is no God – only a devil. Slavery is like the bottomless pit. You hear people say to the negro, “Why don’t you accomplish something?” You see the colored men, their faces scarred and wrinkled, and almost deprived of intelligence in some cases – their manliness crushed out; stooping awkward in gait – kept in entire ignorance. Now, to ask them why they don’t do some great thing, is like tying a man or weakening him by medicine, and then saying, “Why don’t you do out and do that piece or work, or plant that field with wheat and corn?…”

Drew, 91.

In Howe’s report, Lindsey confirmed much of what he said to Drew about the line between the acceptance of Freedom Seekers as legally free, but otherwise generally unwelcome:

“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. We may have the best team in the world and the best means in the world to carry on business, but unless we can make business within ourselves, such as gardening or something of that kind, we cannot get anything to do. Here are children, that we think as much as white people think of theirs, and want them elevated and educated; but although I have been here thirty years, I have never seen a scholar made here amongst the colored people. I speak only of St. Catharines…The white folks don’t give them any chance at all. I have asked the authorities there – “What are you going to do with the colored people? What will become of them? What kind of citizens will they make? You will only make paupers and culprits of them…”

“The colored people in Canada have no chance for advancement; not only social advancement but they are barred out from everything that will give them a living…As a general thing, the colored people are not invited into society. I have never been invited to but one party since I have been here…”

Testimony of J.W. Lindsey

The Fine Line

Lindsey’s interviews, along with the others featured so far in the series, are important because there is a clear decline in optimism over the period between 1855 and 1863. While he and others maintained their legal freedoms, society was unwelcoming and prejudicial to the point that he and others claimed that it was the same if not worse than in the United States, and that legal freedom did not equate to Freedom Seekers having the same opportunities that were open to white people in St. Catharines.

The interviews reveal a very fine line between acceptance and prejudice. This is why it is so frustrating to read these sources, but also difficult to come to terms with the reality that racism existed in our past, and certainly persists in our present. It is ugly, it is contradictory, and it is embarrassing. It’s that embarrassment though that leads us to sweep these histories under the rug creating a culture of deniability that is just damaging as racism itself.

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.

Part 4 of BHM: The Howe Report

Additional Sources

Drew, Benjamin. The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008.


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