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Our History, People

Black Canada: Mary Ann Shadd and the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society

Curated by Lauren Chang

Storytellers: Mia Brooks, Samantha Meredith, Dorothy Wallace

November 2, 2021

Listen to the interview with Mia Brooks below:


LAUREN: For some of us, our family history is passed down through stories, from our parents, grandparents, or even that one uncle you only see during the holidays. Our heritage is a source of pride and identity, and most importantly, it is documented through records, ancestry websites, or family documentation. However, some of us aren’t so lucky. We don’t have a clear idea of where we come from, how we ended up here, and in many cases, there’s no clear route to finding more information about our families. This is the story of someone who started off in this place, one of an unspoken and forgotten history, but somehow, was able to uncover her rich family legacy, learning more about her heritage and ultimately, herself. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

This is Lauren Chang from the People’s Archive of Rural Ontario, a new initiative from the University of Guelph aiming to bring the stories of rural Ontarians to you. You’re listening to [name of PARO podcast].

This is the only existing photograph of Mary Ann Shadd, taken around her late 20s. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-029977. Date: c. 1845-55

Though we’ll end up in Ontario, our story actually begins in 1823 in Delaware with the birth of Mary Ann Shadd, the eldest of 13 children. Though most Black people in America were enslaved at the time, the Shadds were a free family. Mary Ann’s great grandfather was a Hessian mercenary soldier who fought for the British. Mary Ann’s father, Abraham was officially a shoemaker, but also served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It was illegal to educate Black children in Delaware, so the family moved to Pennsylvania where Mary Ann was educated by Quakers. Mary Ann became a teacher, establishing a school for black children in East Chester, and taught in Norristown and New York City as well.

In 1848, Frederick Douglas, the famous abolitionist, published an article asking readers of his newspaper, the North Star, what could be done to improve the life of African Americans. Mary Ann, who was 25 at the time, wrote, “We should do more and talk less.” She criticized the anti-slavery conventions which were filled with speeches and rhetoric rather than action. She wrote,

MIA VOICEOVER: “We have been holding conventions for years — we have been assembling together and whining over our difficulties and afflictions, passing resolutions on resolutions to any extent. But it does really seem that we have made but little progress considering our resolves.” Frederick Douglas printed the letter, establishing Mary Ann as a fearless and unconventional voice.

Dorothy and Sam in front of the bust of Mary Ann Shadd, sculpted by Artis Shreve Lane at the BME Freedom Park in Chatham-Kent, located on the site of the first BME Church in Canada. Photo Credit: Radio France International © RFI/Céline Develay-Mazurell. Location: BME Freedom Park in Chatham-Kent

LAUREN: In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring that all escaped slaves be returned to their slavers and that all citizens must take part, or else face heavy penalties. In response, the Shadds moved their family north to Canada West, what is now Ontario. Mary Ann believed that she would have greater freedom to continue the fight from Canada. In 1852, she published “A Plea for Emigration; Notes of Canada West” giving potential Black migrants information about settling in Canada. In her own words:

MIA VOICEOVER: “Certain that neither a home in Africa, nor in the Southern States, is desirable under present circumstances, inquiry is made respecting Canada. I have endeavored to furnish information to a certain extent, to that end. and believing that more reliance would be placed upon a statement of facts obtained in the country, from reliable sources and from observation, than upon a repetition of current statements made elsewhere, however honestly made, I determined to visit Canada, and to there collect such information as most persons desire.

LAUREN: In 1853 in Windsor, Ontario, Mary Ann founded The Provincial Freeman, a newspaper

MIA VOICEOVER: Devoted to antislavery, temperance and general literature

LAUREN: The Provincial Freeman was the first newspaper published by an African American woman, and the first newspaper published by a woman in Canada. Understanding that people would not read a newspaper published by a woman, she enlisted the help of Samuel Ringgold Ward, a black abolitionist, and Reverend Alexander McArthur, a white clergyman, whose names were featured on the masthead. Mary Ann placed her initials and called herself the publishing agent. The paper published the voices of Black Canadian anti-slavery activists. Mary Ann was not afraid to speak on controversial issues, criticizing abolitionists who supported segregated schools and communities and denouncing refugee organizations who would support fugitive slaves but not free Black people who were living in poverty. The newspaper would later be published in Toronto between 1854 and 1855, and finally Chatham, Ontario from 1855 to 1857. In 1854, Mary Ann changed the masthead to feature her own name, which was met with intense criticism, Mary Ann was forced to resign in 1855.

Mia with the bust of her ancestor Mary Ann Shadd at the BME Freedom Park in Chatham-Kent. Photo Credit: Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Location: BME Freedom Park in Chatham-Kent

Between 1855 and 1856, Mary Ann travelled through the United States as an anti-slavery speaker. During the civil war, she recruited Black volunteers for the Union Army in Indiana. At 60, she graduated from Howard University School of Law, becoming the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree. Mary Ann joined the National Woman Suffrange Association, working alongside Susan B Anthony, becoming the first African American woman to vote in a national election. She died in Washington DC from stomach cancer in 1893.

Our story continues at a Payless Shoe store in modern day Chatham Kent, a municipality in Southwestern Ontario just south of Sarnia.

SAM: So in 2018, myself, Samantha Meredith, and Mia Brooks were working at a Payless Shoe store here in Chatham, Ontario. Mia and I were in conversation about some of our other jobs that we did as well and Mia was asking me about the museum that I work at. So I let her know that you know, it was a Black History Museum, we have a lot of family genealogies on the Black families in Chatham.

LAUREN: Mia was really excited. She didn't know that much about her family heritage.

MIA: My family never really talked too much about our family heritage. I had always known small tidbits of information, mostly just about my grandparents and great grandparents.

LAUREN: Mia asked if Sam knew anything about the Brooks, her dad's side of the family.

MIA: He was explaining a lot about the Brooks family off of the things she had already known. And so from that point, she invited me to come in to look through my family tree. And then from that point forward, we started discovering a little bit more about my family, and about the Shreeve side.

SAM: I still remember the day when Mia came into the office and was like, do you think you can tell me about the Shreeve side of my family? And I just stared at her. And I was like, you're related to the Shreeve family as well? And she's like, yeah. I was like, that means you're related to Mary Ann Shadd! And she's like, wait, what? And I still just remember the excitement of that day.

LAUREN: Did you know about Mary Ann Shadd, Mia?

MIA: I had heard a few things like I knew about the Provincial Freeman. And I heard like a few like big historical things about her but I didn't know like how important that really was. Like, I didn't really know all the things that she had done, and then like exploring that when learning my family history, and all of the things she had done it just like was so much cooler to me knowing that she was related.

LAUREN: Sam is the executive director and curator of the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum.

SAM: So the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum actually started in 1996, when the Wish Centre was built here in Chatham, and from that time, the group of volunteers had already built quite the family genealogy and archive to be put in here. So our founding members were all women from the community who had already been working on researching families, helping build family trees, reaching out to families in the community, and really building an archive here.

LAUREN: Black families first settled in Chatham, Kent in the early 1800s.

DOROTHY: The population was 1/3 of the population of Chatham, meaning quite a bit. And it was thriving, these were people that were educated, they had their own shops they had their ability to fulfil the needs of the community when they came here. It just was a very busy place. Everyone was coming here because of the ability that they felt that they could achieve, and then enjoy some peace in their life and be free. So it was a very busy time, back in the 1840s, 50s and on up until the 19th century.

LAUREN: You've just heard the voice of Dorothy, the board president of the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society.

DOROTHY: My name is Dorothy Wright Wallace. I was born and raised here in the city of Chatham. And right where we're at, it has always been the centre of my life. I've been here all of my life, 78 years.

LAUREN: Over the course of her life, Dorothy has noticed big changes in the black community in Chatham, Kent.

DOROTHY: It was a very busy time when I was born. It was right after the Second World War but before then the First World War. Again, it was very busy. This area was very concentrated with Black people. And also, after the Second World War, that's when things seemed to me, be kind of like disappearing. Because the guys came back, they couldn't find the work, and they were leaving the area. So by the time the 60s came along, most of people were in Windsor, Toronto, and it just seems like from then on, this area has slowly disappearing before my eyes.

LAUREN: In the face of these changes, it is groups like the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society that keep this rich history alive, and allow people like Mia to learn about their forgotten past.

MIA: I just had all these questions when I was growing up, like, well, where did my great grandparents come from, and who were their parents and who were their siblings, and this was all stuff I just didn't really know. So it really like gave me more of an understanding about my roots, why maybe I do things the way I do now, why I cherish what I cherish now. And I think it's made how I view my family just a lot stronger. I just feel a lot closer with my family knowing the information. And it also has really helped me share with them to the things that they honestly don't know either. So really I just feel more educated and more informed. And I just feel more peace knowing where I'm from.

Two visitors enjoy the Black Mecca Museum in Chatham-Kent. Photo Credit: Dudek Photography. Location: Black Mecca Museum

LAUREN: For many of us, our heritage is a source of pride. But we must also remember and recognize that our families, knowingly or unknowingly, may have contributed to or benefited from historical wrongs. This is definitely more difficult. But we must decide to make decisions today that will allow our future generations to look back in pride. With the increased awareness of the historical and continuing discrimination that Black Canadians face, through movements like Black Lives Matter, and over the course of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to look at our own Black history in Canada. People like Sam, Dorothy, Mia, and all the other black historical societies have been doing the work. It is time to reflect on our past and how legacies of our past impact the present. It's time to question our own assumptions, and choose to be uncomfortable. I'd like to end on Mia and Dorothy's hope for the future.

MIA: Someone told me a while ago that we must learn from the past, continue to be available in the present to promote growth for the future. And this really stuck with me for a while and still does to this day and my hope is that volunteering with the Chatham Kent Black History Museum, we will continue to educate people about the history of Chatham Kent as well as Canadian history in general.

Dorothy: I want the schools, the education system to recognize and step up to the plate and say, we have every right to tell our story to our children and let our children have our heroes that we had that were here in the city of Chatham. I just don't mean one day in May. I mean throughout the year, have a concentrated effort to tell the truth and not hide it like they have all these years. They need to know the richness that they have.

LAUREN: This has Lauren Chang from the People’s Archive of Rural Ontario, an initiative from the University of Guelph aiming to bring the stories of rural Ontarians to you. You’ve heard the voices of Mia Brooks, Samantha Meredith and Dorothy Wallace. Special thanks to the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum for helping us put this story together.

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