“Step on the pin, the pin will bend”

By Kes Murray, Registrar

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.

Some of the cassettes that were digitized. They range from radio interviews to collections of stories.

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.”

Information gathered from:


Oshawa Museum Archival collection, accession number: A022.1.1-3

The Importance of a Little Wicker Doll Set

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

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.

A013.4.519: Marriage licence between Mary Andrews and George Dunbar

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.

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.

“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, 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!

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