BHM: The Howe Report Part 4

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

Hidden History

“In regard to their general character of morality, taking into account their position in life and their temptations, I think they are little better than the Irish.”

Testimony of Dr. Theophilus Mack

It is always a challenge to deal with difficult histories, but it is even that much more challenging when difficult stories arise from the source material that go against our popular understanding of ourselves. It hits at the fundamental narrative we use to establish our identity – especially in the case of Black History – as separate and different from our Southern neighbours.

The reaction (in person, on social media, and via other correspondence) to this particular Black History Month blog series has fit this mold. People have responded to the series with difficulty but appreciation. As I discussed in Part 3 of the series, we (me included) have long associated the legal freedom, which Freedom Seekers found in Canada with freedom from prejudice and racism. The picture of Canada and of St. Catharines I had in my head was one that was a ‘safe haven’ for Freedom Seekers. Technically true: legal freedom was available to Freedom Seekers. But St. Catharines wasn’t much of a ‘promised land’ afterall. Understandably, it is difficult to reconcile this information found in the testimonies of the Howe Commission, into the established picture we have of St. Catharines.

“The prejudice here against the colored people is [sic] a great deal than it is in [sic]. Since I have been in the country, I went to a church on Sabbath and the sexton asked me, “What do you want here today?” and I said, “Is there not to be a service today?” He said “Yes, but we don’t want any niggers here.” I said, “You are mistaken in the name. I am not a Nigger, but a negro.”…There is a good feeling toward the colored people in Toronto and Montreal.”

Testimony of Rev. L. C. Chambers

Racism and racialism clearly existed and persisted in 1863 St. Catharines. Prejudicial views about all races were common and held by the leaders of our community.

“But let a colored child from the colored village go through the street, and the moment they got sight of him they could call out “Hallo, you little nigger!” and the little black fellows would be after them too, and call them “niggers”. That is the trouble. They will cluster together, and have their village. I know it is natural, but it operates much against them.”

Testimony of Thomas P. Casey

While it is difficult to accept, these facts do not lessen the importance of challenging our understanding of our community’s history.

Charles Summers and the Fair Accommodations Practices Act, 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, 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.

Howe’s Conclusions

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 must incorporate his own observations since they differ somewhat from the testimony he collected. His main findings were that with legal freedom, Freedom Seekers thrived and were fully capable of finding work and making a living for themselves; that for the most part, they were not a burden on the state or community; that they faced prejudices but that since everyone did, they were able to overcome by gathering together in their own communities; that the climate was only unfavourable to those who were newly arrived, acclimated, or did not dress properly for the weather. Finally, the most important finding is that the Freedom Seekers intended on returning home and establishing themselves if their freedom was established and guaranteed (since in 1863, the Civil War was ongoing and the Union Army was unable to enforce emancipation in the South until they pushed through in 1865).

In reading both the testimony and his own report, I can only imagine Howe’s reaction to what he had heard. Sifting through the prejudices and finding the facts of the condition of the Freedom Seekers must have been difficult and I often wonder if he was surprised, or if, since it was so common and casual, that he had particular skill at discovering the truth.

The report does so much to advocate for freedom and equality of newly freed slaves either in Canada or in the United States and my favourite passage comes from Howe’s last paragraph and sums up his findings perfectly:

“Finally, the lesson taught by this and other emigrations, is that the negro does best when let alone, and that we must beware all attempts to prolong his servitude, even under pretext of taking care of him. The white man has tried taking care of the negro, by slavery, by apprenticeship, by colonization, and has failed disastrously in all; now let the negro try to take care of himself. For, as all the blood and tears of our people in this revolutionary struggle will be held as cheap, if they re-establish our Union in universal freedom, so all the suffering and misery which his people may suffer in their efforts for self-guidance and support will be held cheap, if they bring about emancipation from the control of the whites.”

Howe, 104.

Read the Howe report and its conclusions.

The Summer’s case is an example of how a community and its leaders can forget the past. If the history of racism in our community wasn’t hidden from view, or openly denied as it was in this case, it 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.

Howe’s conclusions show that he too found the prejudicial nature of the community in St. Catharines troubling and said it has consequences for the eventual success of Blacks who remain in Canada even after emancipation in the United States:

“6th. That when they congregate in large numbers in one locality, and establish separate churches and schools, they not only excite prejudices of race in others, but develop a spirit of cast among themselves, and make less progress than where they form a small part of the local population.”

Howe, 102.

Howe never revealed why Blacks and other races faced so much prejudice in St. Catharines, and perhaps he never asked. The testimony also does not reveal the genesis of the problem. It cannot be because Freedom Seekers had established themselves in one area of the city and formed their own schools and churches, because Mack, Stephenson, and some other interviewees were casual about their prejudices concerning the Irish population in the city.

“If you asked Mr. Camp which class of people caused the county the most trouble, the Irish or the colored people, he would have told you if he told you the truth: the Irish.”

Testimony of John Kinney.

If all this (this year’s blog series parts 1-4) shocks you, and if the Charles Summers case shocks or surprises, then it is time to challenge your understanding of history in our city. Slavery existed in Canada until 1833; racism and prejudice clearly persist today. So, this Black History Month, will you continue the myth and ignore the past, or will you embrace our whole history and call it out for what it is?

“If it was not for the Queen’s law, we would be mobbed here, and we couldn’t stay in this house. The prejudice is a great deal worse here than it is in the States. The colored people can always get more money than the laboring white people, because they can do the work better.”

Testimony of Mrs. Susan Boggs.

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 Sources

Howe, Samuel Gridley. The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West Report to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission. Boston: Wright & Potters, 1864.

Patrias, Carmela and Larry Savage. Union Power. Edmonton: AU Press, 2012.

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