Tubman Institute co-sponsors history and genealogy conference

York’s Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples will co-sponsor the 12th annual US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference this Friday, Sept. 4, in the small historical African Canadian community of Buxton, just outside of Chatham in southwestern Ontario.

The conference is part of the 85th Homecoming Celebration in Buxton, which will run from Sept. 4 to 7. It is a reminder of the injustices endured and the struggles to overcome them. Many made the perilous journey of the Underground Railroad to acquire freedom and an education, and to build a future for themselves and their descendants, with about 2,000 people of African descent settling in Buxton.

Right: David Blight

For the descendants of former slaves, the celebration has become comparable to a pilgrimage home, where memories are rekindled and ties and acquaintances renewed. The Homecoming – the first one was held on Labour Day 1924 – is a celebration of heritage through music, conferences and a variety of activities in the community.

“This symposium represents a collaboration among the Buxton community, the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum and the Harriet Tubman Institute at York, as well as several other community groups and individuals, to promote the histories of people of African descent in Canada,” says York history Professor Michele Johnson, who heads the African Canadian Experiences project at the Tubman Institute. The goal of which is to examine and highlight the multiple and complex experiences of people of African descent in Canada.

“While there continues to be a nationally generated myth that the black presence in Canada is both ‘recent’ and ‘problematic’, we think it is important to remind the Canadian community that the African presence in Canada is almost 400 years in the making, that it has been vibrant and resilient, and that its promise continues to develop and to evolve,” Johnson says.

This year, the US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference will kick off the Homecoming Celebration with greetings from Paul Lovejoy, director of the Harriet Tubman Institute. The conference will feature three keynote speakers: history Professor David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition at Yale University; Velma Maia Thomas, author, historian and genealogist, as well as creator of the Black Holocaust Exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia; and Carl Finkle, past president of the King Township Historical Society in York Region.

Right: Velma Maia Thomson. Photo by Bill Roa.

Blight is the author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation (Harcourt, 2007), Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001) and Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002).

Thomas is an ordained minister. She has worked in the private and non-profit sectors as a communications specialist, editor and community liaison. As a historian and genealogist, Thomas has become a sought-after speaker, lecturing on the Black Holocaust Exhibit, African American history and black genealogy.

For the first time, the conference will also feature a panel of students from York University based on the excellence of their work in the Black Literatures and Cultures in Canada course taught last year by York humanities Professor Andrea Davis, deputy director of the Centre for Research on Latin America & the Caribbean. The students will present work developed in the course.

Left: Andrea Davis

Economics student Fayola Jacobs will present "The (Re)Writing of a Nation’s Narratives in Pencil (Just in Case)", while Ernest Berdan, a humanities student in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, will discuss "A Travelling People: Reframing History Through Fictional Narrative".

Shiemara Hogarth, a history and Latin American & Caribbean studies student, will talk about "Dismantling the Divisive: Re-Defining the ‘Norm’”, and Jamil Jivani, an economics and international development studies student who is returning this week from a York International Internship in Nairobi, Kenya, will present his paper "Marcus Garvey and Canada’s Black Radical Tradition: Contextualizing Black Canadians in the History of the African Diaspora". In addition, sociology student Helen Yohannes will perform the poem "Travelling Peoples", which was written during the course.

“These students are not only wonderful young scholars, they are also excellent York ambassadors,” says Davis, who will be moderating the student panel.

“As an important academic institution in Ontario, in which many students of African descent have chosen to pursue their careers, we think it is only fitting that York University play a part in supporting this effort," says Johnson. "As one of the research units whose focus is on the global migration of African peoples, it is also fitting that the Tubman Institute should be supportive of this venture."

The conference will be held at the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, 21975 A. D. Shadd Rd., North Buxton, Ont.

For more information, visit the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum Web site.