Celebrating Black history in Windsor

Image of a group of people in front of Patterson Park Black historic Murals.

A journey of education and empowerment

September 7 to 9, 2023, marked a pivotal moment for members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/­FEESO) Addressing Anti-Black Racism/Racism Committee and Human Rights Committee as they embarked on a joint-committee journey to Windsor for a meeting unlike any other. The trip was more than just a meeting; it was an opportunity to delve into history and confront the realities of the past. Members left the trip describing it as “exhilarating,” “moving,” and “eye-opening and pre-conception breaking.” This wasn’t your average excursion; it was an immersion led by the landscapes that bore witness to pivotal moments in history. The premise was simple yet profound: to transcend the boundaries of traditional meetings and immerse ourselves in history firsthand.

This endeavour was born from collaboration, inspiration, and a commitment to fostering inclusive education. As a District 12–Toronto, Teachers’ Bargaining Unit Executive Officer, I was approached with an extraordinary idea—an explo­ration of Windsor’s Black history, meticulously curated by Dr. Andrew Allen, Director of the Joint Ph.D. in Education Studies, and Associate Professor at the University of Windsor. This trip was based on a program Dr. Allen runs annually with secondary students. We worked for almost a year co-planning and finding a way to make this trip a reality. With gratitude to Amani Ausar, a former D12 member whose vision sparked this endeavour.

Our journey commenced with a visit to the John Freeman Walls Historic Site, a living testament to the struggles and triumphs of the Underground Railroad era. As we walked through the open-air museum, we encountered Walls’ original log cabin and the Walls’ family cemetery, tangible relics of a tumultuous past. The emotional guided walking tour and re-enactment transported us back in time, allowing us to empathize with the harrowing experiences of those who fought for liberation. Artifacts like the false-­bottomed carts used by enslaved individuals to conceal themselves underscored the ingenuity and fortitude of those who dared to defy oppression.

Taking a moment for quiet reflection felt poignant at the Peace Chapel, dedicated to the memory of Rosa Parks. Within the chapel’s serene confines lay a symbol of profound significance: a cross made from the bricks of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tragically died. Standing amidst this sombre reminder of the sacrifices made in the struggle for civil rights, one couldn’t help but be moved by the weight of history.

At the University of Windsor, we had the honour of learning from Irene Moore Davis, President of the Windsor–Essex Black Historical Research Society, who shed light on the local Black history. Through her insightful presentation, we gained a deeper understanding of the significant contributions made by Black Canadians to the economic, social, and cultural fabric of
Windsor. From the Big Emancipation celebrations in Jackson Park to the perilous journeys of freedom seekers across the Detroit River, we learned of the pivotal role Windsor played in the Underground Railroad. The solidarity between Black and Indigenous communities and the enduring legacy of resilience and determination left an indelible impression on us all.

Some members of our group visited the Tower of Freedom monument on the Windsor side during our trip. The monument, dedicated in 2021, is a tribute to the bravery of enslaved African Americans who sought freedom through the Underground Railroad. Two distinct parts, one in Detroit and the other in Windsor, symbolize the journey to liberation. Standing at the statue staring across to Detroit, it was incredible to imagine what the difference between crossing the river would mean for the lives of freedom­-seekers. The Tower of Freedom monument stands as a beacon of remembrance and gratitude, honouring the spirit of those who dared to pursue freedom against all odds.

A highlight of our adventure was our visit to the Sandwich First Baptist Church, a beacon of hope and refuge for the enslaved. This church provided an emotional reminder of the
sacrifices made by our ancestors. As we stood in the underground chamber where freedom seekers once hid, the weight of history surrounded us, grounding us in a shared legacy of resistance and tenacity.

The Amherstburg Freedom Museum, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Black history, served as a fitting finale to our journey. This is a little museum with a lot of heart and bursting at the seams with artifacts. It was truly incredible to be in the presence of so much history, and we were privileged to visit the archives as well. It did not take a lot of imagination to consider the value of bringing students to this site. As we explored the museum’s exhibits and learned about its vital role in educating future generations, the importance of supporting initiatives like this museum that ensure these stories are never forgotten was evident. The museum’s dedication to education and mentorship through programs like the Freedom Achievers Program ensures that inspiring young people dream big while providing them with mentors and support.

A particularly special moment occurred when our group paused at the Patterson Park Black History murals. The sight of these vibrant depictions of our history sparked excitement and pride, culminating in a heartfelt group photo. It reminded us that our history is not confined to textbooks; it lives and breathes within us, waiting to be acknowledged and celebrated. One member’s favourite part of the trip was the power of laughing, learning, and celebrating Black history with colleagues.

The significance of Windsor in Black history cannot be overstated. During the difficult era of the Underground Railroad, this border region served as a beacon of hope for those fleeing slavery. Codenamed “Midnight,” Windsor was a sanctuary where freedom-seekers dared to dream of a better life beyond the reach of oppression. Crossing the Detroit River was both a physical and metaphorical journey fraught with danger and uncertainty.

However, the struggle for liberation did not end with emancipation. Once on Canadian soil, freedom-seekers confronted new challenges, from securing access to education and property to fighting for political enfranchisement. Theirs was a journey marked by resourcefulness and unwavering determination in the face of adversity.

This journey through Windsor’s Black his­tory was not merely an academic exercise but a deeply personal and transformative experience. By immersing ourselves in the stories of the past, we gained a deeper appreciation for the struggles that have shaped our present reality. Each stop on our tour left us yearning for more time to absorb the knowledge and wisdom of those who paved the way, a testament to the depth and complexity of Windsor’s Black history. While reflecting on our time in Windsor, one member said, “It reminded me that every story matters, that every piece of history is worth saving, and that the stories of the past are best told by those with lived experience.”

But this journey is not just about the past; it is about the present and the future. Adele Ramcharan, from District 9–Windsor, reflecting on the experience stated, “There’s a windmill in Windsor in old Sandwich Town where we were, along the river in Mill Park. On it are the words in LED lights: ‘All we are is all we were.’ This is true. We have to learn from our past to move on to a better future. This trip helped us all learn a lot more about ourselves and the history of our country.” This sentiment encapsulates the essence of our collective endeavour. It is a call to action for continued education, empowerment, and preserving Canadian Black history. The bonds forged during this trip are not easily forgotten. They serve as a reminder of the power of collaboration and the sharing of ideas between members of both committees.

While this visit to Windsor has provided a glimpse into the rich Black history, it is merely a starting point. Ontario boasts numerous other sites that offer valuable insights and education, waiting to be explored and celebrated. Should you have the opportunity, visit Windsor and its surrounding areas. Experience the John Freeman Walls Historic Site, Sandwich First Baptist Church, and the Amherstburg Freedom Museum firsthand, and engage with the Windsor­­–Essex Black Historical Society. These organizations are vital pillars in preserving and sharing the stories of Black Canadians.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to continue this journey of education and empowerment. By incorporating diverse perspectives into our curriculum and fostering an inclusive learning environment, we can ensure that the voices of marginalized communities are heard and valued. By shining a light on the rich tapestry of Black history in Windsor and beyond, we empower future generations to embrace diversity, celebrate heritage, and strive for a more just and equitable society. Let us continue to honour the legacy of those who came before us and pave the way to create a future rooted in justice, equality, and dignity for all.

1. Amherstburg Freedom Museum: https://amherstburgfreedom.org/
2. John Freeman Walls Historic Site: https://www.undergroundrailroadmuseum.org/
3. Justin, Author. all we are is all we were – Justin Langlois. 14 Feb. 2013, justinlanglois.com/artwork/all-we-are-is-all-we-were.
4. Sandwich Baptist Church: https://www.facebook.com/Sandwich.First.Baptist.Church/
5. Windsor-Essex Black Historical Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/190323444348625/

About Danica Izzard
Danica Izzard (she/her) 2022–23 Chair, Provincial Human Rights Committee, Teacher, District 12, Toronto

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