Black history in diaries and letters at York University

Black history is recorded in church registers, the letters and diaries of African slaves and in the history of the small Ontario towns to which they fled, says York University professor Paul Lovejoy (right), director of a centre which is digitally preserving these compelling documents.

The Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the Black Diaspora is helping to trace the migration of many of the 20,000 African-Americans who used the Underground Railroad to flee to Upper Canada between 1840 and 1860. It is a small part of a much larger project by the centre, which works in many countries and with many research partners, to tell the story of how the world was changed by the black diaspora – the forced migration of millions of African slaves from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

In Canada, Black History Month devotes February to the study of African and related history, but the impact of black history on demographics is felt every day of the year, says Lovejoy, a distinguished research professor at York and Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History.

“In the 1850s, every town and village in Ontario had black people settling in. Ontario had the largest community of freed African-American slaves in North and South America. Many of these people wrote down how they escaped slavery or dictated their stories to someone who preserved the tales – not just Harriet Tubman herself, who got her whole family out and became known as the conductor of the Underground Railroad,” says Lovejoy.

Right: Harriet Tubman

The Underground Railroad has become famous in Ontario history, but many Ontarians do not realize there was once an entire community of African-Americans and former slaves in Buxton, near Chatham, and that many of the town’s current residents are descendants of the original settlers.

Lovejoy and his colleagues at the Harriet Tubman Centre have digitized hundreds of thousands of images and primary documents and are gathering biographical data from around the world to create a massive digital database on the slave trade. This documentation provides information about where the slaves travelled and how their journeys changed the demographics of nations.

A fascinating example – and the focus of Lovejoy’s current work – is a former slave named Olaudah Equiano (left), (1742-1797), who became a famous abolitionist. “He rose from slavery to become a leader of his people,” Lovejoy explains. “Equiano travelled to many parts of the world, and on the basis of what he saw and experienced, he became involved in the campaign to end the slave trade, giving speeches and telling his own personal story.”

Preserving the documents and personal stories of slaves is important, especially for Canada, says Lovejoy. “The fight against slavery through support for the Underground Railroad was the first big human rights issue Canada was involved in and it’s something to be proud of. African and black history in Canada goes back a long way, and this history belongs to all of us.”

The Harriet Tubman research centre is working on a number of projects in different parts of the world. To promote learning at home, a workshop on “Black Music of the Underground,” will be held at York on Feb. 23, 2006, as part of Black History Month.