By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act.
The law, nicknamed the “bloodhound bill,” meant that Blacks who escaped slavery by fleeing to free northern states could be recaptured.
According to Steven Cook, curator at the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History, the act is what “put the steam” into the exodus of Black slaves to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
“I want to say we’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a long way to go,” Cook told a large crowd of supporters gathered for the Black History Month flag raising at the Chatham Civic Centre recently.
The long-time historian said recent events, including the name change at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the dropping of the Blackbirds name from C-K’s new baseball team, highlight the need for more education and discussion of Black history.
“I’ll be real with you,” Cook told the crowd. “Six months ago, we changed the name of our museum from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The response from the community was not very welcoming, or very open to that change.”
Similar to the about face made by the baseball team, both name changes sparked a backlash of comment on social media.
Cook said one of the Black history sites even received an e-mail in relation to the Blackbirds’ decision, saying, “Chatham-Kent is a conservative community and we don’t care what you think.”
The terms “Uncle Tom” and “blackbirding” are both slurs against the Black community. An “Uncle Tom” refers to a Black caricature of a person who caters to whites, while “blackbirding” involves coercing people through deception or kidnapping into slavery.
“So don’t tell me we don’t have a long way yet to go, because we do,” Cook said, noting people don’t know terms have racial undertones until they’re made aware.
However, Cook said he’s heartened by the progress he’s seen, pointing out the swift action taken by the Intercounty Baseball League team’s management.
“We really are impressed with how quickly and decisively the executive made the name change and we’re going to work with them to hopefully bring about a name that’s going to be welcoming and all-encompassing to the community,” Cook explained.
Cook said the negative response on social media came as no surprise.
“I’m not going to say I was surprised,” he said. “I was disappointed in how very little support there was for hearing the opinion of the Black community as to why this was the wrong choice.”
But on the upside, Cook said change is possible, citing the larger than normal crowd that turned out to raise the flag.
“Seeing the support that I see in this circle here – I know that we can bring about the change that needs to come,” Cook stressed. “Your support means a lot to us.”
Cook said Chatham-Kent’s place in Black history is unparalled in Canada, noting the City of Chatham, the Elgin settlement at Buxton and the Dawn settlement near Dresden were places of refuge for fugitive slaves.
“Throughout the entirety of Canada, you’re not going to find the same kind of Black representation you’re going to find here in Chatham-Kent,” Cook said. “So, let’s be proud of that and shine a light on that and let the world know what we have got.”
Cook’s comments were echoed by Mayor Darrin Canniff.
“Chatham-Kent was a historic destination of refuge for those fleeing slavery and oppression,” the mayor said. “Our communities are founded on hope.”
Making people aware of C-K’s Black history is the goal, Canniff said. “Education is powerful. We need more education, but the good news in this is that the vast majority of people in Chatham-Kent are very supportive and very much on the good side of things.”
Both officials hope local residents will celebrate Black history in this month and throughout the year.
“Let’s not end it here in February, let’s tell the story the whole year through,” Cook said.
A full slate of activities is planned for the entire month. Information can be found online at the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum website, the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History website, the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum website, as well the Municipality of Chatham-Kent’s webpage.