As slavery continued in the United States, Britain—and thus Canada—made the practice illegal with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The lure of freedom drew black Americans north of the border via the Underground Railroad, where they settled in southern Ontario and Quebec.
During the 1900s, a number of policies that discriminated against African and Caribbean immigrants were eliminated, and today’s black communities in Canada began to take shape. The country’s black population doubled between 1996 and 2016 and now makes up about 3.5 percent of the population.
As a biracial Canadian, it is essential for me to fully understand the meaning of my country’s black history, as well as to ensure that this understanding is passed on to the next generation. Fortunately, coast to coast black history museums celebrate the unique role black people have played in shaping the country and offer African Canadians the opportunity to connect with their ancestors. Here are some of my favorites.
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Black Loyalist Heritage Centre
119 Old Birchtown Rd., Shelburne, Nova Scotia
Opened in 2015 as part of the Nova Scotia Museum, the Black Loyalist Heritage Center tells the story of Birchtown (now part of Shelburne), which in the late 18th century was home to the world’s largest free African population outside of Africa . After the Revolutionary War, more than 3,000 black people arrived in Nova Scotia, promised freedom and land by the British in exchange for their military service. Sadly, the end of the war only brought more years of oppression and suffering as Black Loyalists struggled to make a living in a new, inhospitable land. In the 19th century, much of the Birchtown population traveled back to the United States, on to Quebec or the Caribbean, or even back to Africa.
Built on a bay overlooking the water, the center explores Black Loyalist history with exhibits of documents and artifacts, some unearthed from an archaeological dig where the museum now stands. Guests can virtually explore the Book of Negroes, a document that records the names of Black Loyalists who immigrated from the United States, and view recorded interviews with Loyalist descendants. A virtual quilt covers the wall at the exit from the center, each square with a previous guest’s name and how they felt after visiting the museum.
Tours take visitors to the Old School House and St. Paul’s Church, both central landmarks of Birchtown’s black community.
Finally, the Heritage Trail from downtown leads visitors to a statue on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, commemorating the 1783 landings of the Black Loyalist in Nova Scotia.
Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum
Established in 2002, this small but sizeable museum tells the story of a small black population who felt forgotten in a prairie province in central Canada. A mostly virtual entity, it runs mobile exhibits preserving the stories of African descendants such as Mattie Mayes, a respected midwife who served the province’s first black settlement, and Saskatchewan’s foremost black cowboy, John Ware.
The museum celebrates the legacies of the people of Black Saskatchewan through photographs, stories, and documents, highlighting notable black natives of the past 150 years, including 1860s pioneers, politicians, farmers, and athletes.
It brings its programming – which includes art exhibitions, performances and children’s classes – to locations across the province, creating meeting spaces for people of color. It too provides speakers for schools and other educational institutions to advance human rights issues in both the region and the country as a whole.
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Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum
177 King St East, Chatham, Ontario
Southern Ontario was known as a refuge for runaway enslaved people who escaped via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. A prosperous Canadian black community sprang up in Chatham, Ontario, a town near the US-Canada border on Lake Erie.
That community thrived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with many successful businesses, medical practices, and schools. The residents celebrated black culture and entertainment, and they were home to the Chatham Colored All-Stars, the first black baseball team to win a title in the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association. Chatham inspired the establishment of other nearby black communities and built a welcoming and compassionate home for those who had recently found freedom.
In addition to displaying documents, photographs, and artifacts, this all-encompassing museum hosts walking tours of the city’s original Black Quarter. This historically rich space also includes community archives from the 1780s to the present, as well as an interactive exhibit full of first-person accounts of those who lived and worked in this Canadian community.
Historic site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
29251 Uncle Tom’s Rd., Dresden, Ontario
This Ontario Heritage site was built on the former site of the Dawn Settlement, a black community founded by Rev. Josiah Henson in 1841. Henson’s memoir, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by himself,” was published in 1849 and inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
After escaping slavery in Maryland and Kentucky, Henson became an active organizer of the Underground Railroad. Through networks and safe houses, he led 118 enslaved people to freedom, including his wife and four children. Around 1836, Henson, with 12 friends and some financial help from the British American Institute of Science and Technology, bought 200 acres of land in Dresden, Ontario, and built the Dawn Settlement, a place for previously enslaved people to live. The vocational school was opened in 1842, followed by a mill, brickyard, farm and church, to promote self-reliance and education. The community began to fade in 1868.
This expansive site, which will be closed for maintenance until June 28, allows guests to visit the restored sawmill, the Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery, and a reconstruction of the house where Henson and his wife once lived. The site also houses the Josiah Henson Interpretive Center, a collection of 19th-century artifacts and rare books, all of which illuminate Henson’s life.
5795 Africville Rd., Halifax, Nova Scotia
Africville was a black community on the northern edge of Halifax Harbor, which is today home to the Africville National Historic Site. Africville has a 150-year history, built on land purchased by free black residents in 1848.
At its peak in the early 20th century, Africville was home to many homes, a robust school, and the Seaview United Baptist Church, a spiritual and social center. However, the city of Halifax refused to provide the residents of Africville with infrastructure such as sewers and roads, or access to clean water and waste disposal. When the area became uninhabitable, the city of Halifax compounded the problem by building unwanted developments in and around Africville. These include an infectious disease hospital, a prison, and a landfill. In the 1970s, Africville was devastated and families were driven from their homes through bribery, intimidation and, in some cases, expropriation.
In 2004, the United Nations officially declared the destruction of Africville and the treatment of its inhabitants a crime against humanity. In 2010, former residents of Africville and their descendants received an apology from Nova Scotia and money to rebuild the original church. It now houses the Africville Museum.
The museum tells the story of a resilient community that lived, worked and thrived here despite constant oppression, highlighting the long-lasting effects of racism and how it shaped the Canada we know today. Visitors can view artifacts from the city’s past, interact with former residents and their descendants, and discover its history through images, documents and videos.
Preddie is a writer from Toronto. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @_nattyp.
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