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.
As a result of the pandemic, volunteers have not been able to return in person to the Oshawa Museum. By not being able to come into the museum, they lose the social aspect of their volunteer experience which is the biggest motivator for some. The museum has been looking for ways to keep their volunteers engaged at home. One proposed way of keeping volunteers engaged is through the audio transcription of oral histories. But if audio transcription is going to be one of the main ways to keep volunteers engaged from home during this pandemic, then the question becomes how do we incorporate and infuse that process with a social component? One theory of mine includes hosting online discussions through zoom or other web-based programs, where volunteers can discuss what they have learned from completing the transcription. They can talk about the process of transcribing itself or discuss the history that they have learned from hearing the voices of the past.
The first transcription I worked on was an oral history from a gentleman named Wardy Pankhurst who was a life long resident of Oshawa that was born in the early 1900s. (We’ve written at length about the Pankhurst family on the blog – read through past articles HERE) I learned very quickly that I could barely understand what he was talking about between the poor audio quality and the lack of knowledge that I had in regards to Oshawa’s past. It wasn’t until I did a bit of digging myself when I began to understand what were the places and people he was referencing. For example, he is hard to hear, understandably being an elderly man born at the turn of the century, coupled with the fact he refers to places and people as if it is common knowledge, which of course would have been if you were alive during his time or if you are well versed in Oshawa history. The first word or rather name that he kept bringing up when referencing to his work past was Malleable. I could not make out what he was trying to say, so I had to ask my dad to see if he could hear because at first, I could not even distinguish what word he was trying to say. After deciphering the word “malleable,” I then still found myself in the dark. After a quick google search I found out that he was referring to the Ontario Malleable Steel Company and then all of a sudden, the entire context of what he was talking about came to fruition. It connected his tales about working for the McLaughlin’s, to travelling south of the border to Detroit then coming back to Oshawa to sell his services to the highest bidder. Doing this research to simply understand the story he was trying to tell gave me the idea that audio transcription can be more than simply turning speech into text. It could be a rewarding experience that turns social transcribers into an amateur research team that seeks to learn more about the history of Oshawa.
The second part of this is that you could turn the finished and researched transcriptions into mini history resources if you will, that have hyperlinks incorporated in them so if someone wants to read the transcription and has questions about certain topics discussed they could simply click on the highlighted word that takes them to a web page on the subject.
This mixture of independent work with a social meeting aspect may help to keep volunteers engaged even if they are restricted to their own homes. However, it is impossible to replace the in-person social aspects of volunteering but this idea gives some food for thought and perhaps gives us an avenue to engage and stay connected during these unprecedented times.
To hear Ward’s memories as relayed by him, take a listen to our video podcast:
The audio transcription project is being facilitated over our Google Drive – volunteers can sign up for which audio file they want to work on, and the MP3s are accessible from that same online folder.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hello once more! It has been a little over a month since my last blog post, and I am now overdue to provide an update on my efforts. At this time I am a little over three thousand words into a new transcription project. As my previous transcription project concluded just shy of forty thousand words in length, I am certain that I still have a lot ahead of me.
This time I’m not transcribing a newspaper or any other print medium, rather the subject of my work is a tape recording from 1972. This recording, an interview of Mr. Wardie Pankhurst, has presented some obstacles that have considerably slowed down the project. For one the audio quality of the old tape necessitates multiple hearings of each sentence. Another problem in the nature of the interview, Mr. Pankhurst and the interviewer have the unfortunate habit of talking at the same time meaning that portions of the recording are completely indecipherable.
To expedite the project we have acquired a new devise which reads the tape and produces an MP3 file of it. This will make it easier to move back and forth to rehear segments. Additionally it seems to have also improved the audio quality in some way which will mean that fewer sections will have to be gone over more than once.
Regardless, there is still much to learn from Mr. Pankhurst’s reminisces about his life in Cedar Dale (now part of South Oshawa). As he was born in 1888 and has lived in the area his entire life he has many fascinating stories about Oshawa. Presently I am transcribing his account of the disappearance of the artificial pond he used to swim in. Previously I transcribed his descriptions of his work at the Malleable Iron Company and its role producing parts for Ford. Additionally I learned of the cost to attend high school in the 1890s (a dollar), and that Oshawa was home to a news reporter who had travelled around the globe no less than four times.
I greatly look forward to discovering more of the tape’s knowledge and seeing what the remainder of my time working here this summer will yield.