Monday, 20 October 2014

CLARISSA BRISTOW JOHNSTON, PHENOMENALLY


AFRICAN CANADIAN HISTORY
BY BLAIR NEWBY

As October is Women’s History month, I thought it would be fitting to feature an extraordinary woman from African Canadian history. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my mother at the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. I can still remember the riveting narratives my mother would recount during her tours and it was always the stories of the courageous female inhabitants of the Buxton Settlement that livened up the museum. One story in particular that was always her favourite to tell and mine to hear was that of Clarissa Bristow Johnston.

Clarissa Bristow Johnston. Photo Courtesy of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum.

Born a slave in Louisiana, Clarissa was the personal maid to her mistress. Catering to her every whim, it was not surprising that when her mistress traveled to Detroit, Michigan, she brought Clarissa with her. It was here that Clarissa first saw Canada. She had never been so close to freedom, because as she gazed across the Detroit River, it was less than a mile away. After telling her mother what she had seen, her mother grew rather distressed that young daughter because she failed an escape attempt. In that moment, she made Clarissa promise if ever given the opportunity to travel to Detroit again she had to try to escape. As though predetermined by the fates, Clarissa’s mistress returned to Detroit and once again she brought the young girl with her. Unbeknownst to her mistress, Clarissa and her mother had said their final goodbyes and at the age of twelve, Clarissa mustered up all of the strength and courage she had and made that perilous journey alone.


Slave wanted poster.

Settling in the Buxton Settlement, she was placed in the care of one of the local families. Years later, Clarissa married Abraham Johnston. Together the couple would have twelve had children. Sadly, however, only four of their children reached maturity. Widowed at a young age, Clarissa once again conjured up the strength and courage that she exhibited when she had escaped years earlier and in time when a woman would have normally remarried, she chose not to. She managed to not only provide for her family, but also to keep their farm in her name. When I think of Clarissa Bristow Johnston, the late Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman always comes to mind. She personified Dr. Angelou’s brilliant words, “Cause I am woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”

A replica of  the Buxton Liberty Bell. When a fugitive slave arrived in the Buxton Settlement, the liberty bell, which was housed in the settlements Mission church, would ring out in celebration. The replica now sits in front of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. 

1 comment:

  1. Blair, thank you for sharing this story: it is remarkable what the human spirit can endure in times of devastating circumstances and distress. To hear this story told at the Buxton Museum would certainly be a memorable museum experience, as it clearly has been for you. I'm wondering, does the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum interpret Clarissa's story in any other way (besides oral interpretation)? If so, how does the museum present her journey (texts, images, objects, otherwise)? If there is no other evidence apparent of Clarissa's story other than the anecdotal evidence in tours, do you recommend (and how) it should be presented more permanently in the museum?

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