Friday, 25 November 2016


How do you recognize your connection to the past and embrace it in the present? This is a topical question to ask since November has been a month of exciting renaming and reclaiming projects related to African-Canadian history in Toronto.

1. The Opening of the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre

Artists completing the mural for the Centre. (Source)

Transit in Toronto is a hotly debated topic. However, long before talk of subway extensions and ride-sharing licenses, finding the fastest, easiest and cleanest route around Toronto, then-York, was a common concern in the early nineteenth century. One solution? Track down a taxicab from one of the city’s earliest transit operations started by former slave Thornton Blackburn.

Blackburn and his wife Lucie Blackburn embody the complex African American-African Canadian identity politics and illustrate the transnational mobility of Blacks during this era. You can read more about their stories in Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad and in a previous Musings post.

Stories about the Blackburns have resurfaced since the opening of the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre last week at George Brown College.  The opening activities included tours, live performances, an artifact presentation and a lecture by Smardz Frost.  Students from George Brown also presented their mural “A Leap of Faith” that is dedicated to the Blackburns and will become a permanent feature in the space.

2.  Welcome to Blackhurst Exhibition curated by Chinedu Ukabam

Welcome to Blackhurst on at Markham House (Source)
Welcome to Blackhurst aims to unearth, dust off and reposition Black history in the Bathurst and Bloor area. As the exhibit explains, Black history in the area did not begin with the waves of Caribbean immigration in the 1960s.  Historical evidence places Black settlers in this neighbourhood as early as 1860. The focus is on the individuals who lived there, some of them escaped slaves, as well as the businesses they started as a way to support themselves when they were denied service based on their race elsewhere in Toronto.

Welcome to Blackhurst will close on December 11, but Ukabam is already exploring new ways to preserve this history.  The redevelopment of the surrounding Mirvish Village that will transform the look of the neighbourhood in more ways than one makes these efforts that much more important. 

I applaud both of these projects for several reasons. Both initiatives successfully merged archaeological findings, archival material, artifacts and contemporary art into coherent and engaging presentations. Also, both the Centre and the exhibition grew from collaboration between different community stakeholders and key sources of knowledge such as the Ontario Black History Society.


Moreover, I appreciate that these projects launched at a time to meet a need in the community. In effect, these efforts challenge the notion that Black History is only to be celebrated in February. 

Finally, I’d argue that both projects have fully grasped this idea of Sankofa, which to the best of my knowledge is an African value that encourages people to "go back and fetch it." Said differently, only after claiming your past can you begin move forward.

So reader, how can museums better position themselves to ensure we don’t only look back but we also move forward?

What area would you like to rename to better reflect its origins?

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