Every February is celebrated as Black History Month. In Canada, the first Black History Month was celebrated in 1988 in Nova Scotia. The Ontario Black History Society petitioned the Ontario government in 1993 to proclaim February as Black History Month.
In December 1995, after an idea by Rosemary Sadlier, president of the OBHS, the Canadian House of Commons recognized Black History Month in Canada, following a motion introduced by the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament.
In 2008, a motion was introduced by Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, to “Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month,” receiving unanimous approval.
To learn more about Oshawa’s Black history, we invite you to visit our Black History Month Resource page. Here, we have rounded up blog posts written about Oshawa’s Black history and people of note, videos sharing these stories, as well as included links to other organizations and resources.
As we continue our journey into Black History Month, we here at the Oshawa Museum are celebrating the incredible legacy of many Black Canadians in our community. One such notable Black Canadian on our radar is Dr. George Blake.
Dr. Blake was born in 1922 on Green Island, Jamaica. At age 18, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in England and was stationed as a meteorologist in Northern Scotland. After the war, Dr. Blake worked as a government clerk in London, England. During this time, he read a book on Buddhism and decided to change his life’s path. He studied and became a samanera (novice monk) at the Sinhalese Centre in London. He received his full ordination as a Theravadan Buddhist Monk at the Wat Paknam Temple in Bangkok, Thailand in 1956.
From here, he attended the University of Edinburgh, graduating with a degree in psychology, and eventually becoming a clinical psychologist. Moving to Whitby in 1966, Dr. Blake worked at the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital (today’s Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences) and later founded the Pinewood Centre for Addiction.
Along with Dr. Blake’s work in psychology, he was also an incredible storyteller. Dr. Blake founded the Durham Folklore Society in September 1990. As well, he was an original founder of the Storytellers of Canada. I believe his love of storytelling came from his incredible life journey, originating in the Caribbean, to Thailand, to his clinical work.
Dr. Blake not only told stories, he collected them too. From the Caribbean, to West Africa, to India, to Germany, no story was outside his grasp.
Beginning in mid-January and ending some weeks ago, I digitized the incredible stories Dr. Blake told. Dr. Blake recorded himself telling stories over fifty-six cassette tapes. As I’m sure you are well aware of by now, the range of stories is immense, from stories of the mischievous Anancy, a character in Caribbean folklore, to Jataka tales, or stories of the Buddha. All these stories reflect the incredible life Dr. Blake lived and, foremost, his knowledge and passion for storytelling.
While Dr. Blake is no longer with us, his stories and his achievements continue to reflect the incredible person he was. As with many of his stories, I would like to end this post with a phrase Dr. Blake uses to end many of his stories.
“Step on a pin, the pin will bend, and that’s the way the story ends.”
In 1981, a collection of wicker doll toys were donated to the Oshawa Museum. The donation of a tiny rocking chair, a toy washstand, and a set of doll furniture certainly fit the collecting mandate of the Museum given that the Pankhurst family had been long time residents of Oshawa. These toys also had deep connection to an important part of Oshawa’s history as the donor, Greta Pankhurst, was the great-granddaughter of Wealthy Andrews, the matriarch of one of Oshawa’s earliest Black families.
Early collecting practices tended to focus on collecting items that had connections to prominent early white settlers. This donation has that connection as the donor forms indicate that the items had belonged to the Conant family before coming into the ownership of Greta. This connection would have made the donation very important under these early collecting practices. While it is unclear if Greta’s connection to Wealthy was known or understood when the items were added to the Museum collection, this donation is important because of its connection to Greta and her family.
Today we are grateful for the existence of this donation as it is one of the few artefacts that we have connected to early Black setters. Museums use artefacts or objects to help us to understand the past and to tell the story of our community. There is very little artefact or object based evidence to help us tell the history of early Black settlers in our community, and this creates a challenge when it comes to exhibiting these stories.
We are fortunate to have documentary evidence. In fact, beyond resources like census records and land records, we are incredibly fortunate to have the original marriage certificate of Greta’s grandparents, Mary Andrews and George Dunbar. We also have family photographs and an audio recording of Greta’s brother, Ward, reminiscing about growing up in Cedar Dale. Research through documentary evidence has helped us to better understand the history of early Black settlers in the area and has helped us to share this important aspect of our history.
While we work to fill in the gaps left by earlier collecting practices, we are also working to tell the histories that were lost in that gap. Items like the little wicker doll set are a part of work.
This month I have had the privilege of visiting a number of schools and community groups to discuss Black History in Oshawa. My first lecture at an elementary school brought a profound realization from a few of the students. “I thought Black History Month was just about famous people,” they said after hearing about the Andrews/Dunbar/Pankhurst family. My mind was blown. They got it!
One of the things we are most proud of at the Oshawa Museum is our ability to tell the stories of everyday people, people who thought their lives weren’t special or they had nothing to tell. As a historian, I can tell you that these are often the most wonderful finds.
Years ago while I was working on the Olive French Manuscript, I came across a teacher named Wealthy Ann Shipman. In all my time working at the Museum, I had never heard that name before. I thought it must be a mistake, after all, Wealthy is not a common name. Wealthy was a teacher at Harmony School No. 1 in the early 1830s, who married Ackeus Moody Farewell Jr. circa 1835. It is possible she may have been named after the mother of a family friend, Wealthy Dunbar Andrews, one of Oshawa’s earliest Black settlers. Wealthy Dunbar Andrews was born around 1795 in Vermont, whereas Wealthy Shipman was born in 1813 in Quebec. At this time it is unclear when the Andrews family moved from Vermont to Quebec, but research is ongoing.
During Black History Month, we make it our responsibility to tell the public about five generations of the Andrews/Dunbar/Pankhurst family. Wealthy Dunbar married Peter Andrews – a black woman marrying a free white man, as he was enumerated in the 1810 U.S. federal census. In the next three generations, there were interracial marriages and children. By 1861, after the death of her husband in 1851, the census records Wealthy living with the Shipman family. Her daughter, Mary, and her family live in a log cabin on land owned by Thomas Conant . Interestingly, we can see many uncommon names appearing in both family trees – Wealthy Andrews’ daughter, Mary, named two of her children Marietta (1865-1911) and Lafayette (1858-1886), perhaps named after Moody and Wealthy Farewell’s children Marietta (1839-1877) and Lafayette (1841-1854).
This month also gives us the opportunity to discuss things like bias with the students. For years academics have argued the early Black settlers have been dramatically under counted in Canadian census record. This family highlights the problems encountered when looking at census records. The 1851 census records the family as being “Coloured Persons/Negro,” the 1861 census does not note ethnicity, the 1871 census records the family as being African, and the 1881 census records the family as being of Scottish and English descent. These records show how difficult it can be to research early Black history.
We’re half way through the month and have already spoke to over 150 students about what life was like for Oshawa’s earliest Black settlers; this number will likely double by the end of the month. It feels good to know that we’re telling this family’s story, but there will be more. There is more. Research always leads to more questions! To learn more about the family and see photos, search for Black History in the top right hand corner and click on the other articles!
John Baker is an important part of Oshawa’s history, even thought it is entirely possible he never spent any time here. Baker was one of two enslaved gentlemen granted freedom from slavery, along with land and money, in the will of Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. His connection to Gray, along with being named in the will, resulted in Baker gaining a level of fame and notoriety. A quick search on the internet turns up a surprising amount of information on the man and his life.
In a publication on the early history of the town of Cornwall, Ontario, author Jacob Farrand Pringle wrote about Baker and provided information about the life of the man though to be the last surviving enslaved person of African descent in both Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). The Baker family can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Cato Prime. Prime was native of Guinea, West Africa before being sold into slavery to John Low of New Jersey. Prime had a daughter, named Lavine, who in turn had a daughter named Dorine, all of whom were slaves to the Low family. Dorine was given as a gift to Elizabeth Low, the daughter of John, and came with Elizabeth when she married Captain John Gray. According to Pringle, Dorine was 17 years old when the Gray family brought her to Canada with them.
The Grays resided in Montreal from 1776 to 1784 when they moved to an area just east of Cornwall. Dorine met and married Jacob Baker in Gray’s Creek, the area just east of Cornwall named for the Gray family. Baker’s history is unclear. In an interview with a Toronto newspaper in 1869, John says that his father was a Dutchman; however, in his book on the history of Osgoode Hall, author James Hamilton states that Baker was a German Hessians who served with the British Army during the American Revolution. Either way, Baker was a free man while Dorine remained a slave to the Gray family. According to Pringle, the Bakers had a large family. The two eldest children, Simon and John, were born slaves as the law at the time stated that children inherited the status of their mother. Two daughters, Elizabeth and Bridget, were born free as laws had changed prior to their birth. Upon the death of John Gray, Dorine and her sons became the property of Robert Isaac Dey Gray, the son of Elizabeth and John.
In that interview with the Toronto newspaper, Baker recounts his life with the Gray family. Referring to John Gray as Colonel, Baker spoke of how strict his master was.
“The Colonel had much property; he was strict and sharp, made us wear deerskin shirts and deerskin jackets, and gave us many a flogging. At these times he would pull off my jacket, and the rawhide would fly around my shoulders very fast.” 
Robert I.D. Gray was apparently less cruel to those he owned. After practicing law in Cornwall for a short time, he went to York and in 1797 was named the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. Gray took Simon Baker with him to act as his body servant.
In August 1798, Elizabeth Gray was granted 600 acres of property in Whitby Township. It is this property that connects the Baker brothers and Gray to Oshawa. Robert Isaac Dey Gray and Simon Baker died when the ship they were travelling on, the Speedy, wrecked near Presqu’ile Point, Brighton Township. In his will, Gray finally granted the Baker family their freedom. Gray not only granted freedom to Dorine and her family, but he also made provisions for her future. The will stipulates that £1200 from his real estate holdings be put into a fund for Dorine and that the interest be given to her annually. He also left provisions in his will for Simon and John. To Simon, he left 200 acres of lot 11 in the second concession, as well as his clothes and a watch worth £50. To John, he left 200 acres of lot 17 in the first concession along with £50.  Land registry documents show that the property left to John was finally transferred to him on June 12, 1824. John did not keep the property, as records indicate the lot was sold to Martin Sanford on June 14, 1824. The records are difficult to read, and it is unclear how much money John sold the lot for.
John Baker’s interview with the newspaper gives us glimpse into his life as a free man. After Gray’s death released Baker from slavery, he began to work for Justice William Dummer Powell. While with Powell, he enlisted with the army and went to New Brunswick, fighting in the War of 1812. According to Baker, he was with his regiment during battles at Lundy’s Lane, Fort Erie and Sackett’s Harbour. It appears that Baker was in the military until after the battle of Waterloo, where he apparently saw Napoleon and was not particularly impressed. From his interview with the Toronto newspaper, “I saw Napoleon. He was a chunky little fellow; he rode hard and jumped ditches.”
Once his time in the military ended, Baker returned to Canada and settled back in Cornwall. He worked in the area until age caught up with him. Around 1861, he received a pension from the British government for his time in the military. John Baker died on January 18, 1871.
At the time of his death, Baker was believed to be the last person to been held in slavery in the Canadas. Many Canadians do not know that slavery existed here. Baker’s life helps us to better understand slavery in the Canadian context.
 Pringle, Jacob Farrand. Lunenburg or the Old District: its settlement and early progress : with personal recollections of the town of Cornwall, from 1824 : to which are added a history of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and other corps; the names of all those who drew lands in the counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, up to November, 1786; and several other lists of interest to the descendants of the old settlers. Cornwall: Standard Print House, 1890. Page 319.
 Hamilton, James Cleland. Osgoode Hall Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar. Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd. 1904. Page 132.
 Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Domesday Whitby Township. Page 174. Note, Whitby Township at that time referred to what is today the Town of Whitby and the City of Oshawa. The land that was owned by Gray was located in what is today Oshawa.
 In Pringle’s book, he notes that the will leaves 200 acres of lot 11 of the first concession to Simon and 200 acres of lot 17 in the second concession to John. The Domesday records indicate that the grants were for lot 17 in the first concession and lot 11 in the second concession.
 Ontario Land Registry – Abstract/Parcel Book, Durham (40), East Whitby, Book 189. Page 289.
 Of note, this is the same judge that employed Thomas Henry at the start of the War of 1812.