Saturday, 8 February 2014


BY: BLAIR NEWBY, MMSt Candidate and Executive Director of CKBMM

Within Canadian history books and in classrooms across the country what is often absent is the history of African Canadians. Despite a long history within Canada, there is little or no discussion of the Black presence within in the country. In an attempt to raise awareness of Black history in Canada, following a motion made by the Right Honourable Jean Augustine (the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament), the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in 1995. Modeled after Black History Month in the United States, it is an opportunity to reflect on and honour the contributions and achievements of Canadians of African descent.

Published by Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first woman to own her newspaper in Canada
Courtesy of the CKBMM

In recognition of Black History Month, each week I will feature one of the Black Historic Museums from my home town of Chatham-Kent and a historic personality or event related to the respective museum. This week’s museum is the Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum (CKBMM).

Established in 1994, the CKBMM is dedicated to preservation and promotion of the history of the Chatham Black community. The museum houses both thought-provoking exhibits that range from the struggle for freedom to the triumphant rise made by people of African descent, and an extensive archival collection. The collection, which has been referred to as “one of the pre-eminent African Canadian collections in North America”, by award winning historian Dr. Karolyn Smardz-Frost, PhD, attracts researchers, educators, genealogists and life-long learners.

Isaac D. Shadd, courtesy of CKBMM

The history of the Chatham black community is both rich and diverse. A Mecca for both free and enslaved blacks, Chatham was known as a hotbed of abolitionist activity and as the center of the Black intellectual elite. As such, between the years 1850 -1870 six different Black medical doctors practiced in Chatham. Home to Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Antislavery Journal, The Provincial Freeman; Chatham, additionally, was the only center for black Conventions following both Frederick Douglass’ Rochester Convention and Dr. Martin Delany’s Cleveland Convention. In 1858, Chatham Blacks hosted two conventions; the Emigration Convention and the John Brown Convention. The latter convention was the infamous meeting where the famed abolitionist John Brown formulated the plans for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Moreover, in September of 1858, members of the Chatham Vigilance Committee boarded a railway car and removed a young boy named Sylvanus Demarest and an American white man claiming to be the boy’s owner. Demarest was rescued, however, charges were brought against the committee by the railroad officials and five blacks, including Isaac D. Shadd (pictured) and two whites were arrested. The charges were dropped and the defendants were released when it was revealed that the man in question, W.R. Merwin had never owned Demarest and was in fact kidnapping the young boy with the intention of selling him into slavery. Sylvanus Demarest briefly remained in Chatham in the care of the Shadd family until he was reunited with his mother.

As my mother taught me, “When you know your history, you know your greatness!”

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  1. Having spent my first 18 years (and then some) in the US, when I came to Canada I did notice a difference and lack of public programming on the history of African Canadians. (I can't speak for education, because I have never experienced elementary or secondary school here.) I thought maybe I was missing the boat, but your post helps to inform my opinion here. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience on the subject! As a museum professional, how to you think museums can better engage with Black History Month and Black History in general, whether part of the Black Historical Museums network or otherwise?

    Looking forward to the next posts in the series!

  2. Katherine, I was telling Blair exactly the same story the other day - having studies in a liberal arts school in the US, I remember the significance of February and the richness of events taking place that month. It is so incredible how alive the Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum is - talking about museums which are relevant, this is a cultural institution which is so full of stories and continues to tell those stories through its community. Thank you for sharing its rich and fascinating history, Blair!