While slavery continued in the United States, Britain – and thus Canada – made the practice illegal with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The lure of freedom drew the Black Americans north of the border via the Underground Railroad, where they settled in southern Ontario and Quebec. .
During the 1900s, a number of discriminatory policies toward African and West Indian immigrants were eliminated, and Canada’s current black communities began to take shape. The country’s black population doubled between 1996 and 2016 and now represents around 3.5% of the population.
As a biracial Canadian, understanding the significance of my country’s Black history is critical to me, as is ensuring that this understanding is passed on to the next generation. Fortunately, Black History museums from coast to coast celebrate the unique role Black people played in shaping the country and offer African Canadians the opportunity to connect with their ancestors. Here are some of my favorites.
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Black Loyalist Heritage Center
119 Old Birchtown Road, Shelburne, Nova Scotia
Opened in 2015 as part of the Nova Scotia Museum, the Black Loyalist Heritage Center tells the story of Birchtown (now part of Shelburne), which was home to the largest free African population in the world outside of Africa in the late 18th century. After the Revolutionary War, over 3,000 black people arrived in Nova Scotia, promised freedom and land by the British in exchange for their military service. Unfortunately, the end of the war only brought more years of oppression and suffering as Black Loyalists struggled to make a living in an inhospitable new country. In the 19th century, much of Birchtown’s population returned to the United States, Quebec or the Caribbean, or even Africa.
The centre, which is built on a bay overlooking the water, examines the history of the Black Loyalists with exhibits of documents and artifacts, some excerpts from an archaeological dig where the museum now stands. Guests can virtually explore the Book of Negroes, a document that records the names of Black Loyalists who emigrated from the United States, and watch recorded interviews with Loyalist descendants. A virtual quilt covers the wall exiting the center, with each square containing the name of a previous guest and how they felt after visiting the museum.
Guided tours take visitors to the Old School House and St. Paul’s Church, two central landmarks of Birchtown’s black community.
Finally, the center’s heritage trail leads visitors to a statue on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, commemorating the 1783 landing of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia.
Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum
This small but substantial museum, established in 2002, tells the story of a small black population that felt forgotten in a prairie province in the middle of Canada. A primarily virtual entity, it hosts mobile exhibits that preserve the stories of African descendants such as Mattie Mayes, a respected midwife who served the province’s first black settlement, and Saskatchewan’s most prominent black cowboy, John Ware.
The museum celebrates the heritage of Saskatchewan’s black residents through images, stories and documents, and highlights notable black natives of the past 150 years, including 1860s pioneers, politicians, farmers and athletes.
It offers its programming – which includes art exhibits, performances and children’s classes – at venues across the province, creating gathering spaces for people of color. This too provides lecturers to schools and other educational institutions to advance human rights causes in the region and the country as a whole.
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Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum
177 King Street East, Chatham, Ontario
Southern Ontario was renowned as a haven for runaway slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. In Chatham, Ontario, a town near the Canada-US border on the Lake Erie, a thriving Black Canadian community developed.
This community flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with many successful businesses, medical practices, and schools. Residents celebrated black culture and entertainment and were home to the Chatham Colored All-Stars, the first black baseball team to win an Ontario Baseball Amateur Association title. Chatham inspired the founding of other nearby black communities, building a welcoming and compassionate home for those who had recently found freedom.
Along with exhibiting documents, pictures, and artifacts, this comprehensive museum runs walking tours of the city’s original black neighborhood. This historically rich space also includes community archives from the 1780s to the present day, as well as an interactive exhibit full of first-person accounts of those who lived and worked in this Canadian community.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
29251 Uncle Tom Road, Dresden, Ontario
This Ontario heritage site is built on the former location of Dawn Settlement, a black community founded by the Reverend Josiah Henson in 1841. Henson’s memoir, “The life of Josiah Henson, former slave, now resident of Canada, as told by himselfwas published in 1849 and inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
After escaping slavery in Maryland and Kentucky, Henson became an active Underground Railroad organizer. Through networks and safe houses, he guided 118 enslaved people to freedom, including his wife and four children. Around 1836, with 12 friends and financial assistance from the British American Institute of Science and Technology, Henson bought 200 acres of land in Dresden, Ontario, and built the Dawn Settlement, a place to live for former slaves. In 1842, the vocational school opened, followed by a mill, a brickyard, a farm and a church, to encourage self-reliance and education. The community began to fade in 1868.
At this sprawling site, which is closed until June 28 for maintenance, customers can visit the restored sawmill, the Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery, and a reconstruction of the house where Henson and his wife once lived. The site is also home to the Josiah Henson Interpretive Center, a collection of 19th century artifacts and rare books, all highlighting Henson’s life.
5795 Africville Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Africville was a black community on the northern edge of Halifax Harbour, where the Africville National Historic Site is located today. Africville has a 150 year old history and is built on land purchased by free black residents in 1848.
In its heyday in the early 20th century, Africville was home to many homes, a solid school, and the Seaview United Baptist Church, a spiritual and social center. The City of Halifax, however, has refused to provide Africville residents with infrastructure such as sewers and roads, or access to clean water and garbage removal. As the area became uninhabitable, the City of Halifax compounded the problem by building unwanted developments in and around Africville. These included an infectious disease hospital, a prison and a landfill. In the 1970s, Africville was destroyed and families were driven from their homes through corruption, intimidation and, in some cases, expropriation.
In 2004, the United Nations officially declared the destruction of Africville and the treatment of its inhabitants a crime against humanity. In 2010, the former occupants of Africville and their descendants received an apology from Nova Scotia and funds to rebuild the original church. It now houses the Africville Museum.
The museum tells the story of a resilient community that has lived, worked and thrived here, despite constant oppression, and highlights the lasting effects of racism and how it has shaped the Canada we know today. Visitors can see artifacts from the city’s past, interact with former residents and their descendants, and explore history through images, documents and videos.
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