“Benevolent Slave Owners” and Other Historical Myths

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

History, particularly local history, plays an important role in binding a community together.  A shared past helps to create ties that give communities a sense of connectedness.  What happens when we begin to face that fact that our past may not be as idyllic as we have been presented with?  What happens when we remove the rose-coloured glasses of local history and confront the realities of our collective pasts?

There is a new monument in Montgomery, Alabama which looks to remove those rose-coloured glasses and honour the lives lost during a particularly ugly part in American history. The monument is the very first of its kind honouring the lives lost to lynching and is an important step in taking an honest look into the past.

Memorial_Corridor_at_The_National_Memorial_for_Peace_and_Justice
Memorial Corridor at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama. Photo © Soniakapadia, accessed from wikipedia.com

What does a monument in Alabama, focusing on a specific period of American history, have to do with Oshawa? This monument, and the history that it is honouring, relates to local history in Oshawa on several levels. The first level is that the prevailing views that led to more than 4000 Black Americans, men, women, and children being lynched by mobs of white Americans were also prevalent in Oshawa. The popularity of minstrel shows featuring actors in black face, indicates an underlying racism in our community. Oshawa newspapers from the 1910s through to the 1950s show advertisements for these shows and include images of actors in black face.

17 Jan 1928.png
“Fourth Annual Minstrel Show” 17 Jan 1928

Perhaps more telling, and directly connected to the new memorial opening in Alabama, is a postcard that was part of a collection of photographs taken by an Oshawa resident between 1914 and 1918.  This Oshawa resident was training to be a pilot during WWI.  The training took place in both Deseronto, Ontario and Fort Worth, Texas.  The photo album contained photographs of the trials and tribulations of those early pilots.  In fact, the vast majority of the photographs were of crashed biplanes with their noses in the dirt.  One postcard photograph stood out among the rest.  It was not another crashed biplane, but it was of a black man who had been burned alive and lynched with a crowd of white people, men, women and children, standing around watching his horrific death.

The image was horrifying.  What was even more horrifying was that the subject matter was seen as appropriate to be used on a photograph postcard, and this Oshawa resident thought it okay to own this postcard. Certainly, I am applying 2019 values to my response to the image and the beliefs exemplified by the image. However, just because the deep seeded racism at the root of the lynching and the creation of the postcard were common place during the creation of the image, doesn’t make it right.  These sorts of actions and attitudes tend to be softened when we examine them as history because these views were common place.  It is wrong today, and it was wrong when it occurred.

The softening of our ugly past can be seen when we examine the language used to discuss it.  Did you know that in the early 1800s an Oshawa landowner left his property to his slaves upon his death?  Robert Isaac Dey Gray’s family fled the United States at the start the American Revolution. The family was prominent, and Gray made use of his family’s position to become a lawyer and eventually held a seat in the House of Assembly of Upper Canada. When the family arrived in Quebec, they brought with them Dorinda Baker, one of the slaves owned by Mrs. Gray’s family. Slave ownership is a part of Canadian history, and it is part of Oshawa’s history. In a book on the crash of the H.M.S. Speedy, the shipwreck that took the life of Gray and Simon Baker, the slave son of Dorinda, the author calls Gray a “benevolent slave owner.” He notes the kindness which prompted Gray to purchase Dorinda’s mother Lavine and allow her work as much or as little as she wished.  He highlights the fact that Gray left his property, including his clothes, to Dorinda’s sons, as evidence that Gray was kind and benevolent. Can one truly be benevolent when they own human beings?  This soft language is used to lessen the impact of the simple fact that Gray owned people as property.

Slavery is a part of Oshawa’s past.  A Canadian Chapter of the KKK is a part of Oshawa’s past. Attitudes that accepted postcard images of lynching and minstrel shows are all a part of Oshawa’s past. Certainly, this is not just Oshawa’s past but Canada’s as well.

Historians, curators, archivists, and other museum professionals are facing the impact made by looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses.  We have an obligation to remove those rose-coloured glasses, be cognizant of the language we use when discussing the darker parts of our past, and to dig into the impact made by creating a historical narrative that lessened the negative in favour of highlighting the positive.

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