By DANIEL PEARCE, SIMCOE REFORMER
Updated 4 days ago
Norfolk County has the perfect reason to celebrate Black History Month in February: the man the county seat is named after, Sir John Graves Simcoe, enacted legislation that led to the banning of slavery in Upper Canada. That was more than 200 years ago, well before the U.S. Civil War that was fought over the issue began. In fact, Upper Canada was essentially the first place in the British Empire to abolish slavery thanks to Simcoe.
But what, asks Donnaree Douglas, a woman who was born in Jamaica and moved to Renton four and a half years ago, will be done to mark this part of our history next month? She knows the answer and doesn’t like it.
Douglas says it’s time the area officially marked Black History Month and had that part of Canadian history entered into the classroom curriculum in Brant- Haldimand-Norfolk.
For Douglas, the issue is not about a dry recital of facts and dates with a cursory bow to the great man Simcoe. It’s also about the here and now.
Douglas, 40, moved to Renton from Scarborough with her husband Paul Annon, who commutes an hour and a half a day to Toronto where he works as a TTC bus driver, to have a life in the country.
What she found in Simcoe and area, she says, surprised and concerned her: little bouts of racism.
There was the time she was pulled over by a police officer after making a questionable left-hand turn downtown and was asked if she was “from here.” Another time, she says, she was followed by police down the street and into a hardware store. Then there was the incident in which a visiting relative was asked by a stranger about “ganja.”
“It’s just little things like that I find troubling,” says Douglas.
Douglas is pregnant and she and her husband want to stay here and raise a family.
The truth is, she says, that the county is likely to see more people like her and Paul — everyday people who move here to escape the city — in the coming years and had better be prepared for the change.
“It’s not all going to be white people,” she says. “People out here have very limited knowledge of black history or the reality of being black and living in this area or Canada,” she adds. “If you expect me to come to your country and know about your country, I expect you to know about me as well.”
Despite our association with Simcoe, Norfolk’s history with blacks is not squeaky clean. First of all, his legislation didn’t ban slavery so much as it as it phased it out gradually, says local historian and author Cheryl MacDonald. The earliest settlers to Norfolk, including the Culver family, brought slaves with them.
Norfolk was part of what was known as the underground railroad, essentially a safe haven for escaped slaves from the U.S. seeking safety. But the blacks who fled here in the mid-1800s and formed a community of several hundred in Simcoe suffered from racism, she says.
Their children, says MacDonald, were kept out of schools with whites under the guise of a new law — promoted by local Loyalist Edgerton Ryerson — that allowed parents to set up private schools on ethnic grounds.
After the Civil War, Norfolk’s black population left, many of them returning to the U.S. where they saw better opportunities or could be reunited with family, says MacDonald. “For some of them, it was the weather.”
So now history is about to repeat itself. As surrounding cities become too crowded and too expensive, people come to Norfolk looking for a better life.
Douglas says a good place to start for creating an atmosphere of better racial understanding could be Black History Month activities.
Off to the side in the graveyard behind the historic church in Port Ryerse, she notes, are three “tiny” graves belonging to a black family.
“A memorial needs to be done,” suggests Douglas.
“We (the community) need to work collectively together and then formulate a plan to celebrate (Black History Month).”
Daniel Pearce 519-426-3528 ext. 132 [email protected]