Gaining Perspective on Black History

September 28, 2023

Members of Blacks in Renewable Energy (BiRE), an Affinity Network at Pattern Energy, recently traveled to Southwestern Ontario in Canada to learn more about the history of the Underground Railroad and the importance of Black history in Canada.

Over two days, several Pattern Energy employees visited three historic museums in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

The first stop was the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History outside the small town of Dresden.

Staff from North Kent Wind and South Kent Wind welcome members of the Blacks in Renewable Energy affinity network to Chatham-Kent to tour three museums about Black history in the area.

A Visit to the Josiah Henson Museum

As the museum’s website explains, “An estimated 30,000 Black refugees from slavery in the United States fled to Canada along the silent tracks of the Underground Railroad—a network of people who aided these refugees as they followed the North Star to freedom. One of these freedom seekers was abolitionist, preacher, and author Josiah Henson.”

The museum, formerly called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was recently renamed for Josiah Henson, the man who inspired the character of Uncle Tom in the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“After escaping to Upper Canada (now Ontario) from slavery in Maryland and Kentucky, Josiah Henson established himself as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, traveling the clandestine network of paths and safehouses in reverse. In his role as conductor, he rescued 118 enslaved people,” the website explains.

Josiah Henson is buried on the property.

Tour guides at the museum led a Jeopardy-style game to teach visitors about key moments in early Black history in Canada. Participants learned “the first Black person thought to have set foot on Canadian soil was Mathieu Da Costa, a free man who was hired by Europeans to act as a translator,” and the story of “Marie-Joseph Angélique who allegedly set fire to her master’s Montréal house.”

After visiting the Josiah Henson Museum, members of BiRE shared their thoughts.

Reflecting on Black History in Canada

“It was really eye-opening to have an understanding of what role Canada played for refugees of slavery, establishing themselves in Canada, building communities, and then returning to the United States. It was great to have this experience,” said André Walker, senior vice president, power operations and executive sponsor of Pattern Energy’s DEI Council.

“It was interesting to make the connection between American Black history, Canadian Black history, and the Underground Railroad. I also learned Canada has an extensive history of slavery as well. Both museums were transparent about it,” said Catherine Lewis, executive assistant to André Walker.

“We were able to get a little more perspective on the Underground Railroad and how it was heavily influenced within Canada, which, as an American, I didn’t know,” said Lauren Haller, senior director and senior counsel, operations. “My ancestors were slaves, and to visit the church at the Josiah Henson Museum and see some of the lyrics to the songs that were passed down through generations, ones I was familiar with because my parents and grandparents passed them down—it was like wow, this is my history too,” she said.

Part of the group visiting the church and learning about songs with coded messages, letting enslaved people know to head north on the Underground Railroad.

“Growing up as a Black American, I felt like I knew about the Underground Railroad, but I didn’t really learn about what happened to the enslaved people when they came to Canada. I never thought to question it. That’s why it’s important for us to teach our kids the rest of the story,” said Amanda Cambrice, senior asset manager.

Amanda recognizing some of the songs from her childhood.

Later in the day, the group drove 20 minutes west to Chatham, Ontario, to visit the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum.

A Visit to the Black Mecca Museum

On its website, the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum explains it “has gathered, preserved, and celebrated Chatham-Kent’s rich Black history. With its collection of displays, artifacts, and archives, the Museum, with humble roots, has remained dedicated to unveiling the remarkable stories of Chatham-Kent’s Black community from its beginnings in [the] 1780s to present day.”

The Black Mecca Museum has artifacts from Chatham’s Black community.

Members of Blacks in Renewable Energy and Pattern Energy staff were taken on a tour of Chatham’s east side, visiting areas of historical significance. Tour guides explained Chatham’s Black history spans many decades, from the Underground Railroad to the 1850s, when one third of Chatham’s population was Black. 

They also talked about the successes and challenges of an important baseball team. The Chatham Coloured All-Stars were “a group of Black men who began playing baseball together in 1932 at Stirling Park in the east-side of Chatham and in later years had players join from Walpole Island First Nations and the local white community. In 1933, Archie Stirling, a Chatham business man in Chatham’s east-side and local representative for the OBAA noticed the skills and talent of the team and helped get them into the city’s baseball league, where they played against the white teams of the city.”

Tour guides said racism and segregation were a part of daily life in the 1930s, making it difficult for the team to play in the league, but in “1934, during the All-Stars’ second year in the league, they won the provincial championship in the Intermediate B Division. They played the Penetang Shipbuilders from Penetanguishene, Ontario, in the final series and beat them 13 to 7, making them the first all-Black team to win an OBAA title.”

The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society has extensive family genealogy records of families from the area’s Black community. Several families still live in the area today, including Dorothy who is one of the main tour guides at the museum.

Dorothy grew up in Chatham and still lives there. She provides walking tours of the area.

Dorothy showed the group the site of the BME Church. “In response to the growing tensions surrounding slavery, Canadian members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Conference formally established Chatham’s BME (British Methodist Episcopal) Church in 1856. On this site, American Abolitionist John Brown held his initial meeting to gain supporters for his attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he was later removed once they found out the nature of his meeting.”

The group visiting what is now the BME Freedom Park.

The church has since been torn down, but the site has been turned into a park in its memory. Dorothy also showed the group more of the area she grew up in, pointing out the homes, friends and family, and other historic locations. Along the way, she introduced the group to other families who have lived in the area for generations.

Connecting with Community and Passing Down History

“The greatest part about my visit to Chatham-Kent was listening to Dorothy talk about her community and listening to the pride she has in her community, and the history of it as well. It made me realize how important community is,” André said.

While on the tour, Dorothy ran into a friend and a local Councillor.

“My parents taught me a lot about slavery and the impact slavery had. Visiting these museums reminded me that, as a parent, I too have to continue this education with my kids. The textbooks can only take them so far. As parents, we have to fill in the gaps, and it’s important adults continue to pass on history to the next generation,” Lauren said.

“I found today to be really insightful, and I really appreciated the experience. When I learned about the Underground Railroad previously, the story ended when they reached the North, and we didn’t really get the rest of the story. On the tours today, we learned more about Harriet Tubman and her story in Canada, and how dangerous it was for everyone on the Underground Railroad,” said Carolin Wootres, environmental management system specialist.

“My great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave in Texas, then became free and went on to become a state legislator, and one of the bills he presented was the University of Texas for Blacks. To learn more about the history of not just my direct ancestors but my people who came from Africa and to see there were so many sympathizers in this area and the Canadian people who helped, it was very impactful to me,” Lauren said.

Amanda and Lauren at the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History.

Gaining Perspective

“Part of our diversity and inclusion efforts is to ensure our employees do a small part in our community and in our company to help our employees better appreciate other perspectives, so I totally gained a new perspective today,” said André.

“I was fortunate to go to a school that taught us Black history, and my grandfather was very passionate about making sure we understood where we came from. Just because a museum says it’s a Black museum, that doesn’t mean everyone isn’t allowed to come because Black Canadian history and Black American history is also Canadian history, American history, and world history. The best way to learn these things is to go to the museums,” said Amanda.

Inside a historic house at the Josiah Henson Museum.

“It was interesting to learn about the Black community that helped build Chatham and about the main people who drove that. There are so many resources to learn more about local Black history, including going on the tours offered by the Black Mecca Museum,” said Lana Downer, site logistics coordinator at North Kent Wind.

Continuing Education in Buxton

On day two, the group visited the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. They learned more about Black history in the area and about families who continue to live in Buxton many generations later. Read more about the Buxton Museum here.