“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.

Black History Month

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

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).

File552 - Mary Andrews Dunbar

Mary Augusta Dunbar (nee Andrews), 1835-1887

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!

Who Was John Baker?

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

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 slaves granted freedom from slavery, along with land and money, in the will of their master 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).[1]   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.[2]  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.[3] 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.[4] 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.” [5]

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.[6]  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. [7]  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.[8]

 

john baker land registry

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.[9] 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.”[10]

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.


Endnotes

[1] 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.

[2] Hamilton, James Cleland. Osgoode Hall Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar. Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd. 1904. Page 132.

[3] Pringle, page 319.

[4] Cornwall Community Museum Blog, “The Emancipation of Cato Prime & John Baker,” Published September 10, 2016; accessed January 22, 2019 from: https://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/the-emancipation-of-cato-prime-john-baker/

[5] Pringle, page 321.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] Ontario Land Registry – Abstract/Parcel Book, Durham (40), East Whitby, Book 189. Page 289.

[9] Of note, this is the same judge that employed Thomas Henry at the start of the War of 1812.

[10] Pringle, page 322.

The Tale of Two Brothers

By: Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
This post originally appeared on the Durham Region Area Archives Group website

The Andrews family has been a research focus of mine since 2011.  The history of the family helps to tell an under researched and overlooked aspect of Oshawa’s early history, the history of black settlement in the community. The research has traced the family from the 1790s in Vermont, through Lower Canada in the 1840s and finally Oshawa in the 1850s to the 1980s. Like most research projects, this one is ongoing and from time-to-time, I write about an interesting aspect of the family that has emerged.

As my research moved into the early 1900s, I began to focus on where two of the descendants, Albert and Ward Pankhurst, were during the period of World War I.  What I found was a story that fit into the much larger narrative of race and service during the war.

Albert GD Pankhurst

Albert GD Pankhurst, from the archival collection of the Oshawa Museum

Eldest brother Albert enlisted on April 23, 1915 with the 28th Battalion in Portage La Praire, Manitoba where he had moved to after 1911 to work as a farm labourer. His attestation paper, the form filled out upon enlisting, provides some interesting information about Albert particularly when compared with the information collected on his brother Ward.[i]

On Albert’s attestation paper there is information that may seem inconsequential until you know that his family is interracial. The first interesting tidbit is that it notes that Albert has previously served with the 34th Ontario Regiment for three years.  This regiment was an infantry battalion and would not have been desegregated. How then did Albert end up serving with the regiment?  It appears that he was able to identify with his father’s ethnicity and sign up to serve.

Black men were not particularly welcome in the armed forces, and this was true during WWI.  Black men wanting to enlist were met with backlash and protest, even after the federal government declared that those wanting to enlist could not be denied based on race. Even with the backlash, a few Canadian combat units did have black volunteers in their ranks.  One of those units was the 116th Battalion, a battalion associated with the 34th Ontario Regiment. [ii] The vast majority of black men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during WWI served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion.  This segregated battalion faced racism in the form of difficulty finding a commander, hostility from white officers and enlisted, and forced to serve through conscription after being turned away when they volunteered.

Dulmen POW Camp

Dulmen POW Camp, postcard from the Australian War Memorial

After basic training, Albert boarded the S.S. Missauabie and set sail from Montreal on September 4, 1915.  The 28th Battalion arrived at the Front and took part in both the Battle of St. Eloi and the Battle of Mount Sorrell. On June 6, 1916 Albert was reported missing and by July 19 he was officially a Prisoner of War being held at Dulmen, Germany.[iii] During his time as a POW, Albert was held in three different camps.  The first was Dulmen, followed by Wahn and finally Limburg.  It is from Limburg that Albert was able to escape.  According to his personnel file, Albert escaped from Limburg POW camp on March 3, 1918 and arrived back in England by March 14.

While Albert was held prisoner in Germany, his brother Ward found himself in Detroit when the United States entered WWI. Ward became part of the first wave of men registered for conscription in WWI. His draft card notes something interesting and would impact where he would serve as he prepared to head overseas.

On the draft card, under race, Ward is listed as being Caucasian.  However, that notation was scratched out and Black written above it.[iv] A draft card did not equal time served and I am currently working to determine if Ward actually served. If he did serve, his experience would have been far different than Albert’s due to Ward being listed as Black.

Much like Canada, when the U.S. entered the war, black men enlisted or attempted to enlist, in large numbers.  The U.S. already had four all black regiments when they entered WWI. These regiments had a long history, dating back to the end of the Civil War. Within one week of declaring war, black men volunteered in such large numbers that the War Department had filled these regiments and stopped accepting black volunteers.[v]

When the U.S. government determined that they would not be able to raise a large enough army through volunteering alone, the Selective Service Act was passed on 18 May 1917. Ward was officially registered on 5 June 1917 and his name put on the list from which names were drawn to call to military service.  While the act had a provision in it that no one was exempt based on class or group, the draft boards did not necessarily follow this.  It has been argued by historians that draft boards comprised of wealthy white males, did in fact exempt those of the wealthy class.  It has been argued that the draft boards chose men who dis-proportionality represented immigrants, rural farmers and blacks to military service.[vi]

Research is ongoing to determine if Ward was selected for military service.  If he had been selected, the change of race on his draft card would have impacted his experience. Black soldiers in the U.S. faced segregation, substandard uniforms and social services. This experience was not unlike the Canadian one, where the majority of black soldiers who enlisted with the C.E.F. were placed with 2nd Construction Battalion.

My beautiful picture

Letter from King George

Both Albert and Ward survived World War I and returned to Canada. Albert received a letter from King George V recognizing his time spent as a POW.   Upon returning home, Albert married Martha Wiggins, an Irish immigrant, in June 1920. The couple emigrated to the U.S. in 1923, eventually settling in California where Albert lived until his death in 1977.

Ward remained in Oshawa and lived with their sister Greta until his death in 1978.  Prior to his death, Ward took the time to speak to members of the Oshawa Historical Society.  He was asked to recount his days growing up in Cedardale and to share memories of life in Oshawa. Unfortunately, few of the memories shared are about his family.


References:

[i]  Pankhurst, Albert George Dunbar service file, Library and Archives Canada. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=554580

[ii]  Ruck, Linsday. No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Encyclopedia. 16 June, 2016. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/no-2-construction-battalion

[iii] Pankhurst, Albert George Dunbar service file, Library and Archives Canada. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=554580

[iv] Pankhurst, Ward DeLayfette, World War 1 Draft Registration Card. Wayne County, Michigan. Roll: 2032676; Draft Board: 24.  search.ancestry.ca/cgi-bin/sse.dll?db=ww1draft&h=33087973&ti
=5543&indiv=try&gss=pt

[v] Bryan, Jami L. Fighting For Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI. Army Historical Foundation. 20 January, 2015. https://armyhistory.org/fighting-for-respect-african-american-soldiers-in-wwi/

[vi] Geheran, Michael. Selective Service Act. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. 8 October, 2014. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/selective_service_act

Ways the Oshawa Museum is Changing the Narrative

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

There is a saying that “history is written by the victor” and this is certainly true when it comes to Canadian history.  So much of our history, on a local, provincial and national level, is written from the perspective of European colonial settlers. This narrow focus has greatly impacted how museum and archival collections have been developed and has created an historical narrative that is not entirely accurate.

Throughout Canada, museums and archives are working to find ways to move beyond the colonial settler focus of our collections and develop collections that more accurately showcase our history.  The Oshawa Museum is working to fill the gaps in our historical narrative, to include more voices and become more inclusive by telling the untold and under researched stories of our community.  In Oshawa, our local history tends to be told through a lens of focusing on the impact of the wealthy industrialists and the companies they ran.  This is certainly an important part of our local history, but it is a very narrow focus and leaves out so many other fascinating stories.

One of the ways we are changing the historical narrative is through our research into early Black history in Oshawa.  Oshawa has had a small Black population since at least 1850, and that population has continued to grow and flourish.  The research has focused on the experiences of one family, the Andrews/Dunbar/Pankhurst family, and examines how their experiences fit into the larger context of the history of Black Canadians.  Research like this widen the lens through which we look at our history and works to tell a local history that better reflects what the community actually looked like in the past.

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Black History Month Display at Hot Roots Festival Launch, 2016

Throughout the month of February, the Museum has been celebrating Black History Month by reaching out to the community to talk about our research.  In fact, over the past month, we have spoken to over 400 members of our community about this research.  It has been truly rewarding to share this research with so many people and help bring focus to the rich and diverse history of Oshawa.