Discussions about Difficult Histories

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

The Oshawa Historical Society’s summer 2020 newsletter is all about Henry House and the Henry family.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the home becoming a museum, and we wanted to celebrate this occasion with a Henry House themed newsletter.  For me, writing about the Henrys inevitably turns into writing about Ebenezer Elijah Henry aka E.E. Henry or Eben. He has been an interest of mine since I first accessioned a letter that he wrote to his father into the archival collection. My newsletter contribution was about this letter and how fascinating I found this glimpse into the more personal life of the youngest of Thomas and Betsey’s sons.

EE Henry (A017.20.1)

Initially the newsletter was to include an image of this first letter along with a transcription because the original handwritten letter can be challenging to read.  After a staff meeting on June 4, we changed our approach and decided to no longer include the letter in the newsletter. Why did we decide to switch this letter for a different one written by E.E.?  Simply put, staff decided that the language used, while appropriate at the time it was written, is not only inappropriate, but it is hurtful for those who he was commenting on.

As the world reacts to the protests against police brutality in the United States, Canada is also looking at our history of anti-Black racism, how that has been white washed from our history, and the role that museums have played in this. In the letter, Henry writes about a recent American election, the controversial 1876 election that saw Rutherford B. Hayes win the election due to a decision made by the Electoral College after losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden.  Henry notes that this election, just a decade after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, had Black Americans terrified that slavery would be reinstated. There doesn’t seem to be any merit behind Henry’s observation, but it is interesting to see his perspective on the political atmosphere in his newly adopted country. The language used by Henry to describe Black Americans is not acceptable, and staff felt sharing that language does not add to the discussion.

Are we censoring history?  Are we continuing to white wash the prevalent racism of those we study in the past?  All valid questions and all ones we weighed against the potential pain we could be adding to a community already dealing with the pain of racism.

No, we are not censoring history.  The complete letter and transcription are in the archival collection and have been printed in full in our publication To Cast a Reflection. The content of the letter is still clear in my newsletter article without including the complete transcription with the hurtful language.

I have written and spoken at length about the challenges of overcoming gaps in our archival collection due to past collecting practices. Our collection is filled with information on the wealthy white elite of our community because that was who was doing the collecting. Currently we are working to fill in those gaps, but it is not easy because much has already been lost.  Research into early Black history in our community has been challenging and rewarding, and ensuring that this community is no longer omitted in our histories is a work in progress. We are very aware that archives and museums are not neutral and we must play a role in ensuring that the community as a whole is represented in what we collect and exhibit.

This post is another way that we are working to be transparent and accountable.  Our decision to not share, at this time, the transcript of a letter with hurtful language was made after much careful reflection and consideration for current events.

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