By Amin Fereg
It’s easy to commemorate the legacy of Black Canadians during the month of February, but it’s important to recognize that Black History is too rich for it to be celebrated during Black History Month.
Black history is in fact also Canadian history, and should be treated as such.
In this VIBE TALKS interview, Correspondent Amin Fereg discusses with Natasha Henry, President of the Ontario Black History Society, some of the resources the organization employs to help promote and preserve Black history.
We also discuss the prospects of Black history being implemented in the Ontario (school) Curriculum, and what that may mean for future generations of students. The story of Black Canadian Chloe Cooley is also touched upon along with the social dynamics between different groups of the African diaspora and finding common ground amongst one another. The different ways individuals interested in getting involved with the Ontario Black History Society is also discussed.
Amin: Could you explain to the listeners what the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) is?
Natasha: The Ontario Black History Society was founded in 1978, so this year we are celebrating our 41st anniversary. The organization was formed to preserve, disseminate and promote Black history in Ontario.
Amin: What are some of the specific resources and tools that the OBHS provides for Black Canadians looking to learn more about their history?
Natasha: We offer a range of services. We have exhibits available for loan, for organizations and school boards for example, [as well as bus and walking tours]. We also host a range of events throughout the year, which are specifically tailored to educate the public on Black history. For example, we had an event at the Lucie & Thorton Blackburn Centre at George Brown College last year, and it was also a book launch for Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost for her book “Steal Away From Home”. We are continuing to expand our programming by collaborating with other organizations and participating in other community events, all with the aim of promoting Black history but also supporting the Black community, as well. We are currently developing our first national exhibit on Black Canadian History and its entitled Black History is Canadian History: Continuing the Conversation. So that’s very exciting as well, because we’ll be able to travel to several places in Canada and we’ll also be curating the voices and experiences of Black Canadians from a range of backgrounds.
Amin: The OBHS places a big emphasis on education, more specifically the promotion of Black heritage in school curriculum. Why does OBHS feel this a strong need for all students in Ontario to learn about?
Natasha: It’s important for all students to learn about the presence and the experiences of people of African descent here in Canada, who have been here for over 400 years. How the national and dominant narrative is constructed, marginalizes and sometimes excludes those stories and so, the organization was born out of recognizing that absence, particularly for young Black youth. The co-founders of the organization were parents, who themselves were concerned that their children weren’t learning enough about their rich Black history and heritage here in Canada. They felt that an organization was needed in order to serve that purpose. Our role is dual in the sense that we continuously work to fill that need by developing resources and offering programs to educate.
We’re also very much a part of supporting schools and helping them to integrate a lot of these stories into their curricular instruction, and also continuing to advocate for the inclusion of Black history learning expectations in the curriculum. This is because to date, there isn’t one specific learning expectation regarding Black experiences that all students in Ontario have to learn. Anything that students are taught is based on the choices of the classroom teacher. We do feel strongly that because, as our national exhibit title says, Black history is Canadian history and that should be demonstrated in the curriculum for all our students.
Amin: Reading through the OBHS website and with a little research of my own, I learned the story of Chloe Cooley. Could you explain to the listeners the story of Chloe Cooley and how her legacy resonates with Black Canadians today?
Natasha: Chloe Cooley was an enslaved Black woman in the Niagara area. In the spring of 1793, her owner, a man by the name of Adam Vrooman, along with his sons and friends tied her up and forcibly put her a boat because he wanted to sell her across the Niagara River, into the United States. Chloe physically resisted and she screamed a violent scream, which alerted a lot of people in the area as to what was going on. One of the people who did hear her scream was a Black man by the name of Peter Martin. He was a Black loyalist who received his freedom in exchange for serving in the British military during the American Revolution. He brought word of this incident, along with a White co-worker, to the legislation, Lieutenant-governor general John Graves Simcoe and the executive counsel. What wound up happening was that Simcoe and the Attorney General John White used this incident to introduce legislation to abolish slavery.
In terms of what happened to Chloe Cooley is very important as well. Last year we recognized the 225th anniversary of that event. Chloe was indeed sold across the river, and initially the politicians asked for Mr. Vrooman to be charged. He ended up being charged for disturbing the peace, because it wasn’t against the law for him to sell his slave property. Mr. Vrooman did respond to the charge, and in his response he said: “Was I doing anything wrong? Because Chloe was my property and other people were doing the same thing.” The charges were subsequently dropped, so he was not charged with any crime. There were then whispers, between and among those who were enslaved and other people, that Simcoe was going to abolish slavery. So people like Mr. Vrooman were selling their slave property across the river, into the United States so that they would prevent any financial loss to their investment. This legislation was passed, however because half of the politicians in the legislature owned slaves or were from slave owning families, they did not want to abolish slavery. They wanted slavery to remain a feature of the colonial settlement here in Ontario.
What this legislation did in 1793, when it passed that summer in July, confirmed that people who were held in slavery in 1793 would remain slaves until their owners decided to free them, if they did. Then it said that the children born after 1793, would remain in bondage until they turned 25 and then subsequently when they had children, their children would be born into freedom. It would be over the course of three or four generations that slavery would be gradually abolished in Ontario. Last year, we really wanted to take that time to acknowledge Chloe Cooley and the fact that we can say her name, and recognize the experiences of enslaved Black women right here in Canada, one of the most subjected groups during that time period. At that time we had the opportunity to share her story and participate in a number of events that wanted to do so as well.
Watch this space for PART 2 of the interview.