Saturday, 22 February 2014



      Located in the town of Dresden, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site (UTCHS) is dedicated to sharing the life story of Rev. Josiah Henson, a former slave who escaped with his family to Canada and founded the British Manual Institute for Science and Technology. For my last post, however, instead of focusing on Henson, I have decided to discuss the Human Right’s movement that occurred within the same community during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, because it is a piece of history that I believe should be shared.  Nevertheless, I do recommend that you visit UTCHS, because it is a phenomenal site.

Rev. Josiah Henson, a former slave, after his master swindled him out of his
freedom, Henson escaped with family to Canada and helped to found the
 British Manual Institute for Science and Technology.
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe utilized Henson's autobiography as a
source for her classic novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

      There has been a perception that within Canada no racism or prejudice exists. This belief stems from what one scholar suggested the Romanticization of the Underground Railroad. Since blacks found freedom from enslavement in Canada, it has simply been accepted as true that there was no racism. Chatham-Kent certainly proved this to be a fallacy.

The second image of a man is of Hugh Burnett.
He was the secretary of the National Unity Association and Human Rights Activist

      Within Chatham-Kent, blacks could not eat in some of the restaurants, have their hair done in salons or barbershops, or even purchase goods in many of the shops. Moreover, black men returning home after serving during WWII were still refused service. Well in 1948, after decades of being treated as second class citizens, African Canadians from Dresden, Chatham and North Buxton banded together to fight against the de facto segregation that plagued their community and formed the National Unity Association. As crusaders for justice, the NUA approached the Dresden council with a proposal to prohibit segregation in businesses licensed by the council. Instead the council decided to put the issue to a referendum. On December 5, 1949, the vote was held. The results were 83 percent in opposition and 17 percent in favour, a direct reflection of the ratio of whites to blacks. The shocking results of the referendum garnered the attention of the Canadian press, and an offering of support from a coalition of Toronto reformers. The hard work of the NUA and the Toronto Reformers led to Fair Employment Practices Act (1951) and the Fair Accommodations Practices Act (1954). However, even with the FAP, stubborn proprietors still refused to adhere to the law and serve blacks in their establishments. To counter the proprietors’ obstinacy, the NUA initiated a new phase referred to as “testing”. In essence, with the help of the Toronto reformers, members of the NUA, blacks from Toronto, as well as others would “test” the restaurants for compliance. As a result of the NUA “testing” phase, the proprietors in their community who still refused to serve African Canadians were ultimately charged and convicted under Section Five of FAP. The courage and determination of the NUA were ultimately rewarded as the barriers that divided their community finally toppled down. Their victories in the field in the Human Rights made it possible for further triumphs and opened the door for future Human Rights legislation across Ontario and Canada.

Toronto Telegram, June 19 1954
Courtesy of the Chatham-Kent Black Mecca Museum

For more information concerning UTCHS, please visit


  1. Thanks for sharing this with us Blair! What an interesting subject to end with!

  2. This is such an important topic to discuss especially in the Canadian context, where multiculturalism often does not allow for ample discussions about racism and its history. I recently attended a talk about black/queer data and during the Q&A the speaker was asked to reflect on the differences between the US and Canada in terms of relations with Black communities. His answer started with a reflection on how Canadians think that they deal with racism better than Canadian but in fact they were involved in some racist practices, such as the ones you discussed in your post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in these difficult histories, Blair!